Thursday, November 23, 2017
Books

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

RECOMMENDED READING


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 [email protected] or (727) 893-8435.

Comments
When to watch ‘Rudolph,’ ‘The Polar Express,’ ‘A Christmas Story Live’ and more holiday specials

When to watch ‘Rudolph,’ ‘The Polar Express,’ ‘A Christmas Story Live’ and more holiday specials

'Tis the season for a TV schedule packed with holiday specials and Christmas classics.We've already been seeing Christmas movies and commercials since early November, but the days following Thanksgiving are when all the networks kick into high gear.F...
Published: 11/22/17
How ‘A Christmas Carol’ was born

How ‘A Christmas Carol’ was born

Charles Dickens’ best-known and most beloved book almost didn’t happen. In 1843, Dickens, then 31, was already dealing with the downside of international success. He had followed bestsellers like Oliver Twist with several flops and was s...
Published: 11/22/17
What to watch this week: ‘Marvel’s Runaways,’ ‘Godless,’ Thanksgiving specials

What to watch this week: ‘Marvel’s Runaways,’ ‘Godless,’ Thanksgiving specials

MondayDavid Letterman: The Mark Twain Prize, 9 p.m., PBS: A special celebrating the work of Late Night and The Late Show host David Letterman.SERIES PREMIERE: Big Hero 6 the Series, 8 p.m., Disney Channel: The new animated series takes place after th...
Published: 11/20/17
Video: Forget Pizza Rat. Meet St. Petersburg’s Pizza Squirrel

Video: Forget Pizza Rat. Meet St. Petersburg’s Pizza Squirrel

New York, it seems, doesn't have a monopoly on pizza-chomping rodents.Around 2:45 p.m. Friday, the Tampa Bay Times spotted a squirrel digging a nearly entire slice of pizza out of a trash can at 146 Second St. N in St. Petersburg. The squirrel hoppe...
Published: 11/17/17
Here are this week’s pop culture winners and losers

Here are this week’s pop culture winners and losers

WINNERS:Taylor SwiftFollowing the death of his mother, Gloria, The Tonight Show host Jimmy Fallon shared a touching story with the audience about his mom squeezing his hand three times and saying "I love you," when he was a kid. "Last week, I was in ...
Published: 11/17/17
Review: ‘Marvel’s Runaways’ pits rebellious teens against their evil parents

Review: ‘Marvel’s Runaways’ pits rebellious teens against their evil parents

The parents in Runaways really are the worst.Hulu's new Marvel series follows a ragtag group of teenagers who have to band together to defeat their own parents, who are collective members of a secret criminal organization called the Pride.In the wake...
Published: 11/17/17
What to watch this weekend: ‘The Punisher,’ ‘Search Party,’ Elizabeth Smart Lifetime movie

What to watch this weekend: ‘The Punisher,’ ‘Search Party,’ Elizabeth Smart Lifetime movie

GRIEF AND GUNS: THE PUNISHERMarvel fans first saw Marine veteran Frank Castle (Jon Bernthal) in Netflix's Daredevil series. The brutish anti-hero finally gets his own series with The Punisher, exploring what he did after helping Daredevil (Charlie Co...
Published: 11/17/17
Review: George Saunders’ ‘Sea Oak’ makes a dead-funny TV comedy

Review: George Saunders’ ‘Sea Oak’ makes a dead-funny TV comedy

Recently, George Saunders won the Man Booker Prize, one of the world’s most prestigious literary awards.And now he has a TV show about zombies!Saunders, one of America’s best writers of fiction, won the 2017 Booker for his splendid novel Lincoln in t...
Published: 11/16/17
Updated: 11/22/17
Jesmyn Ward wins National Book Award for ‘Sing, Unburied, Sing’

Jesmyn Ward wins National Book Award for ‘Sing, Unburied, Sing’

Jesmyn Ward is having a good year.At a glamorous ceremony Wednesday night in New York, Ward was named the winner of the 2017 National Book Award for Sing, Unburied, Sing, about a Mississippi family's epic road trip. The book is Ward's third novel ...
Published: 11/16/17

Events: Tampa historians to sign books at hurricane relief benefit

Book TalkNancy Christie (Rut-Busting Book for Writers) will sign her book at 11 a.m. Nov. 20 at 321 Books, 6901 22nd Ave. N, St. Petersburg.John Cinchett (Vintage Tampa Storefronts and Scenes), Rex Gordon (History of Hillsborough High School), Linda ...
Published: 11/16/17