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Review: John Irving's 'In One Person' a sweeping novel of a man wrestling with sexual identity

In One Person, John Irving's new novel, is a little like Twelfth Night squared, and a little like Great Expectations if Pip were the most sexually adventurous boy in Victorian England.

Irving's fans will find many of the touchstones of his fiction here: a New England boarding school, fatherless boys, wrestling, theater, deep dark secrets — even a few bears, although maybe not the kind you think.

The longtime Irving motif that dominates this novel, though, is sexual identity in its myriad forms, and how hard the world can be for people who do not fit neatly into the very few niches a culture deems normal. Irving explores that theme in depth, with humor and compassion and anger, across the seven-decade span of his main character's life.

The book's narrator is Billy Abbott (born William Francis Dean Jr.), a native of the tiny Vermont town of First Sister. From childhood, Billy has a habit of developing "crushes on the wrong people," but it's really no wonder he's confused. His father disappeared when he was a baby, and he lives his early years with his disgraced mother — she was knocked up, then briefly married, then abandoned — and her parents, the imperious Nana Victoria and the adorable Grandpa Harry. Harry isn't exactly a traditional father figure; although he runs the town's lumber mill and is a pillar of the community, his heart's delight is taking women's roles in the amateur theatricals put on by the First Sister Players. "I actually remember my grandfather better as a woman than as a man," Billy says.

Even before Billy hits his teens, he's confused by his own desires. One early "wrong" crush is on Richard Abbott, the handsome, kindly man who will become his stepfather as well as the English and drama teacher at Favorite River Academy, the prep school in town. Billy and his mother, Mary, will move to the campus with Richard, where Billy will meet another faculty kid who will be his lifelong best friend. Elaine is a skinny girl with a "trombone voice" whom he will love deeply — but not desire.

At around the same time, Billy meets the two people who will most confuse and enchant him, and who will shape the rest of his life: the town librarian, Miss Frost, and a fellow student named Jacques Kittredge.

The statuesque Miss Frost gives Billy books that make him want to be a writer, notably Great Expectations, and one might read her as a sort of Miss Havisham, living a solitary life for some mysterious reason Billy is too young to understand. He wants to, though, because he's smitten by her, dreaming of her strong hands and girlish breasts.

At the same time, Billy and Elaine are both crushing on the beautiful, charming, exquisitely cruel Kittredge. "In that all-boys', boarding-school world, Kittredge was honored as an athlete, but I remember him best for how effectively abusive he was. Kittredge was brilliant at inflicting verbal pain," Billy tells us.

Kittredge is (surprise) a champion wrestler, but Billy and Elaine get to know him when they are all cast in the Shakespeare plays that Richard stages at the school. Kittredge is a memorably drawn character, capable of pivoting from seduction to insult in a single sentence, and full of his own painful secrets.

In One Person spans Billy's life into his late sixties with a structure that is looping rather than linear — the plot leaps ahead to his travels in Europe, his years in New York City as an aspiring and then successful writer, his eventual return to his hometown, but it keeps returning to his childhood as well.

What Billy has figured out before he ever leaves First Sister is that he is bisexual, although even that may be too limiting a term. He has relationships with straight women, gay men, a bisexual woman, male-to-female transsexuals; as an adult, instead of being confused about his desires, he enjoys them all.

That doesn't exactly simplify his life, of course. As he points out, bisexuality may be the most "suspect" sexual category — neither straight women nor gay men trust him. And whether it's in that New England town in the 1950s or Manhattan four decades later, he often confronts bigotry and homophobia.

Irving makes resonant use of allusion throughout In One Person, ringing in not only Great Expectations, The Tempest and Twelfth Night but other works as well. Billy reads Madame Bovary aloud to one of his first boyfriends, and Emma Bovary's gruesome death prompts the boy (who hates the book, and Emma) to say, "(S)he deserves it. Look what she's done! Look how she's behaved!"

That scene will be a grim prefiguring of the first plague years of AIDS in the 1980s, which Irving evokes with heartbreakingly ruthless descriptions of men dying of the disease, and of the families who lose them. Yet Madame Bovary is also at the heart of one of the book's happiest endings.

One by one, Billy loses many of those he loves; as Richard tells him, "If you live long enough, Bill — it's a world of epilogues." But In One Person isn't a tragedy. As he ages, Billy's personal becomes political. Although he grouses about having to keep track of whether to say "LGBT" or "LGBTQ," he's invigorated by returning to Favorite River Academy to teach and finding that instead of being a place where a bi boy must hide his sexuality, it's so transformed that a very openly transgender girl can play Juliet in a production Billy directs.

With a Dickens-size cast of vivid characters and a compelling plot, knit together by its theme of sexual identity and its delight in literary connections, In One Person is an exuberant return to form by Irving, reminiscent of his best works, such as The World According to Garp and The Cider House Rules.

And all that sex? Some of it is strange, some is sweet, some is hilarious, and all of it is vastly better written than a certain bestselling trilogy you might have heard about.

Colette Bancroft can be reached at cbancroft@tampabay.com or (727) 893-8435.

In One Person

By John Irving

Simon & Schuster,

425 pages, $28

Review: John Irving's 'In One Person' a sweeping novel of a man wrestling with sexual identity 05/05/12 [Last modified: Saturday, May 5, 2012 5:30am]

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