A compelling novel of desire, secrecy, and sexual identity, In One Person is a story of unfulfilled love—tormented, funny, and affecting—and an impassioned embrace of our sexual differences. Billy, the bisexual narrator and main character of In One Person, tells the tragicomic story (lasting more than half a century) of his life as a “sexual suspect,” a phrase first used by John Irving in 1978 in his landmark novel of “terminal cases,” The World According to Garp. His most political novel since The Cider House Rules and A Prayer for Owen Meany, John Irving’s In One Person is a poignant tribute to Billy’s friends and lovers—a theatrical cast of characters who defy category and convention. Not least, In One Person is an intimate and unforgettable portrait of the solitariness of a bisexual man who is dedicated to making himself “worthwhile.”
"A profound truth is arrived at in these pages. It is Irving at his most daring, at his most ambitious. It is America and American writing, both at their very best.” (Abraham Verghese) "His most daringly political, sexually transgressive, and moving novel in well over a decade." (Vanity Fair) “In One Person is a rich and absorbing book, even beautiful.” (Esquire)
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I have been a devoted fan of John Irving for decades. He has the rare talent needed to wrap hard issues in literate laughter. In One Person is Vintage Irving. His signature symbols and character types are all present. As in his earlier books, from Garp through Twisted River, Irving continues to address socio/political controversies thoughtfully and fearlessly.
The themes in this book remind us of Robert/Roberta the pro football player defender of Nurse Jenny, of Dr. Larch, the non-practicing homosexual who gave women choices and orphans second chances, of Frannie who learned how to live after gang rape, of Owen who tried to understand his religious parents as he lived out his own dream and even of the twisted multi-generational hatreds in Twisted River. And bears, of course.
It is set in a private boys (originally) school in New England where we are reminded of elderly professors freezing in the snow and of warm, padded wrestling rooms, and a year in Vienna. And while it is fun to encounter the archetypes from his previous books, the social and political questions still remain to be explored and confronted. As he carefully built his arguments for questioning the “status quo” opinions, social norms, natural morals and blind prejudices of earlier generations about prostitution, abortion, sexual orientation, women’s rights, racial justice, child abuse, the handicapped etc, he again argues for Questioning and questing and for sympathy. In Irving’s words, don’t categorize me before you even know me. He asks for tolerance, even for tolerance of the intolerant. To all of this, add Irving’s tragicomIc writing genius and his story telling skills and we have another thoughtful provocative John Irving book. It’s great!
Usually, Irving's timing is about a decade behind current events: Garp's women's equality, Owen Meany and the Viet Nam war, abortion and the Cider House Rules, but with In One Person he is the ram-rod pounding on the doors for the LGBTQ (lesbian, gay, bisexual, transgender, questioning) rights movement; he is bringing it all out of the dark corners, laying it on the table, and telling us "Don't look away!" What I've learned from reading Irving is that a decade of reflection, on even the most confrontational polarizing issues, gives us hindsight; it softens the edges. Perhaps Irving decided (at least concerning equality for LGBTQ) "what we need even more than hindsight or foresight is--insight" right now. My question is rather or not we come away from this novel with that insight.
Present in this novel are all of the Irving hallmarks you come to expect after you've read a few of his books: the writer, the older woman, a stay abroad, the wrestler, absent father, even a "bear" of sorts, and of course the sexuality, all embodied by larger than life Dickensonian characters that Irving does so wonderfully. But besides the fact that the men weren't men, the women weren't women, and the bears weren't bears, something was missing for me--the characters weren't believable, they weren't emotionally congruent, the town seemed quietly complicit then unaccepting, the women were empty or bitchy. AND then there is the sex...
I get that the challenge in reading this book is to look beyond our personal predilections, biasses, definitions, to grasp the message that is more important than our own comfort zones. Good at ya Mr. Irving for having the courage to write a thought provoking novel on this important issue...I'm one of your biggest fans and probably responsible for the sale of a couple hundred copies of A Prayer for Owen Meany....BUT...
I was so disappointed by the gratuitous and titallating way Irving treated the sex between the transgender, bisexual, gay people--as if it were just a crude physical act, promiscuous and raunchy, including an olfactory element (that added nothing to the political statement he was making); he discusses the bars, the bears, the bowels, the fists, the trolling, (and the "ballroom" vaginas) but none of the meaningful relationships, the love or committment--it ends up (npi) being nothing less than ugly pornography between vacuous licentious queens. Of course, the violence and hatred that we inflict upon those that don't share our personal predilections is uglier, and Irving almost redeems himself with a powerful and moving reflections of the AIDS epidemic and how the public turned it's back on the victims. (why I gave 3* instead of 2).
In One Person will probably be heralded by many as a beacon for change-a brave and thought provoking novel. It was my least favorite Irving novel; I almost didn't like it, and it is definitely not for anyone that is not comfortable with alternate sexuality presented in a very harsh manner. (I think even some of my LGBT friends will be disheartened by the portrayal.)So, did I come away with the insight intended?--I think so, but not with the eloquence usually offered by John Irving.