By Kelsey A. Liebenson-Morse
John Irving’s latest novel In One Person tells the story of William, “Billy” Abbott, a bi-sexual man born in a fictional small town in Vermont during the early 1940s. Typical Irving, the setting reeks of stereotypical New England and stifling Puritan undertones. And it’s filled with the usual cast: small-minded or cooky.
Irving follows Billy through childhood and adolescence. It’s a half a century saga that ends as Billy welcomes his late sixties in contemporary America. The novel is mostly linear in structure, but Billy leads the reader backwards and forwards in his memory and in time, often apologizing or editing his own narration.
Irving can be counted on for penning all that is taboo, and his latest novel shows no change in content. He unleashes all his usual tricks: incest, transsexuals, and a healthy dose of explicit sexual encounters. Irving is not for the faint of heart, or for the reader who skipped high school biology. At times, Irving writes in so much physical detail that you can only assume it’s to shock the reader into believing the often unbelievable. For Irving’s tales are larger then life, his characters always leading lives that span across America and Europe, and seem to know no financial or familial obligation. At the same time, Irving brutally brings us back to the reality of life (and death) when Billy lives through the AIDS epidemic of the 80s, losing old lovers by the dozens. Irving speaks of the “death mask” and the image he creates is searing in its candor.
In Billy we find a confused timid young man who struggles with a speach impediment (never getting beyond his inability to pronounce penis correctly, he just says penith). Billy very painfully and very obviously doesn’t fit in, and when he goes to an all boys preparatory school, he exists on the fringes. Irving relies heavily on Shakespeare throughout the novel (the book opens with a line from Richard II, “Thus play I in one person many people,/And none contented) as metaphor and as a backdrop to Billy’s exploration of his own sexuality, or as he refers to it, “crushes on the wrong people.” Billy is cast as Ariel the “sexually mutable” character in The Tempest, and this parallel to Billy’s character holds true. He loves women; he falls in love with men.
Perhaps the most interesting and multi-dimensional character, though, is Jaques Kittredge, high school heart-throb and stereotypical bully. Kittredge acts a foil to Billy. He is beautiful, vain, charismatic and sexually experienced. He is an actor both on and off the stage, and his true nature is as mysterious as he is cruel. Both Billy and his best friend (the fabulously dark Elaine) are in love with Kittredge, and their obsession with him follows them into their adult lives.
The one true love of Billy’s life is the transsexual librarian and former high school wrestling star, Ms. Frost. She gives Billy literature, and sexual initiation. Ms. Frost, formerly “Big Al”, has a most profound affect on Billy, both in adolescence and throughout his adult life. Ms. Frost normalizes for Billy his own struggle with sexual identity, and his struggle in straddling two worlds and two cultures. He is not gay, he is not straight, and Ms. Frost’s acceptance of him, and her constant refusal to allow the world judgment of either her or Billy, never leaves Billy. Irving makes a relationship between a barely legal boy and a nearly grown man-turned-woman into something real, beautiful, and readable. This is where Irving is able to do something better then most. He takes the sordid and turns it romantic. Ms. Frost bathes Billy after their first sexual encounter, and Irving so gently handles the scene, the connection and tenderness between the two characters is palpable, even to the skeptics.
The novel drags on near the end, and characters start to drop dead at an alarming rate. For example, Billy has an unsatisfying encounter with his estranged gay father who is a drag queen in Spain. The most tangible thread in Billy’s life seems lost. But it resurfaces when he finds himself back at his Alma matter, teaching and heavily involved in LGBT work. Here, Billy finds fulfillment and a sense of purpose and community. In One Person is an intimate exploration into the human mind, and dares to question our sexual expectations and notions of normalcy. Irving battles normalcy through Billy Abbott, and Abbott, in turn, becomes in a warrior in his own right.