Tuesday, June 25, 2013

In One Person / John Irving

I've read enough John Irving books by now that I think it's safe to say that if you pick up nearly any of his novels, you will inevitably find one or more of these motifs in it:
  • boarding school
  • wrestling
  • the Northeast
  • Austria
  • fatherhood issues (usually involving an unknown father)
  • the narrator's reflection on his life from the vantage of old age
  • the Bildungsroman (a coming-of-age novel)
I say that not to deter you from his stories, which are wonderfully written, but to point out that it takes a talented author to keep things fresh when he repeatedly returns to what are obviously subjects that are dear to his heart. Irving makes them dear to you, too, with his trademark storyteller's touch and his subtle but incisive sense of humor.

You'll find all of his favorite motifs in full force in his latest novel, In One Person (FIC IRVING and AD FIC IRVING). The protagonist, writer Billy Abbott, reflects on his life and and how it has shaped his sexual identity as well as the other way around — how his sexual identity has shaped his life.

Billy, we soon learn, is a bisexual man; he is attracted to both men and women. As a boy growing up in a small Vermont town, he struggles with the notion that he has "crushes on the wrong people." He grapples perhaps most of all with his infatuations with the callous but charismatic star of the wrestling team at his school, First River Academy, as well as with the town librarian, the mysterious Miss Frost. So it's no surprise that Billy's interactions with both his objects of desire prove unerringly formative.

Irving populates his story with a colorful cast of characters, each of whom leave their mark on Billy Abbott: The caustic Winthrop women of Billy's family and their patient, genial husbands, including the cross-dressing Grandpa Harry. There's Billy's best friend Elaine and her compassionate, unflappable mother Mrs. Hadley. Even Billy's biological father, curiously absent from his life, plays a role.

We follow Billy as he makes his way in the world, from small-town New England to Austria to the Big Apple. Irving does not shirk from exploring the HIV epidemic of the 1980s and the heartbreak it inflicts on Billy and many of his friends. We see Billy in his many forms: a writer, a lover, a friend, a son, a man — a person of many facets, his sexuality being but one of them.

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