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A long review for a great novel!!!
on March 9, 2013
John Irving has been a best-selling novelist since The World According to Garp was published back in 1978. He has since written The Hotel New Hampshire, Cider House Rules, A Prayer For Owen Meany, A Widow For One Year, The Fourth Hand, and, of course, In One Person. He has written other books, but the above list gives you a general idea of this author’s great talent in the field of fiction. I should also point out that many of Mr. Irving’s novels have been produced as major films (Garp with Robin Williams, Cider House Rules with Michael Caine & Toby McGuire, Simon Birch with Ashley Judd and A Door in the Floor with Jeff Bridges and Kim Bassinger).
I personally consider John Irving to be one of the best mainstream writers of the 20th Century, who’s never afraid to tackle prejudice, sexual diversity, the institution of marriage, politics, the Vietnam War, and just about anything else that crosses his brilliant mind.
In One Person, which has just come out in a trade paperback, may be his best novel to date. It certainly deals with difficult subjects (homosexuality, bi-sexuality, cross-dressing, and AIDs) even in this day and time, and how it affects the life of one William “Billy” Dean from the early sixties to the present. This is definitely a novel that will have you thinking and questioning your belief system on what it means to be a male in 20th Century society. You will also see that prejudice exist in all facets of life, not only between straight men and gays, but also in the gay community itself. After reading this novel, I’m almost inclined to believe that prejudice in one form or another is in the genetic makeup of most human beings, based on their personal experiences with life. To paraphrase a line from the novel: “If one person, because of religion or lifestyle, is hated by everyone, then it’s likely that single individual will grow to hate everyone.” In fact, people can often be intolerant of the intolerance of others. That certainly fits me at times as a human being.
In One Person is narrated by William “Billy” Dean and begins when he’s a young boy, living in Vermont with his divorced mom in his grandparent’s home. No one will discuss his long-gone father, and he doesn’t understand why. The only thing Billy is told is that his mother divorced the man when she caught him kissing another person.
As Billy grows into a teenager and attends an all-boy's private academy, he finds himself sexually attracted to one of the wrestlers, Kittredge. He’s surprised by his unexpected emotions, and then amazed when he also develops a crush on his mom’s new boyfriend, Mr. Abbot, who happens to be a new teacher at the academy and handles the plays that are put on by the students. Of course, that isn’t the worse of it. Billy soon falls in love with the town librarian, Miss Frost, as well as finding himself drawn to his best friend’s mom. Billy is definitely a boy filled with turmoil at having a crush on all the wrong people, as he’s told by one of the adults in his life. Still, he can’t help what he feels.
In time and with age, Billy Dean comes to grips with his bi-sexuality. He finds out that his real father (his mom has married the teacher by then) was also attracted to the same sex. Ah, but that’s not all. Young Billy has an extremely brief affair with the local librarian, Miss Frost, only to discover that she’s actually a man. This only intensifies his love for her. Of course, as in most Irving novels, when a young man experiences what he feels is true love for another, it's usually short lived and the teenage never knows what might have been.
As Billy later experiences college and private life (I should point out that he becomes a writer), he experiences a new kind of prejudice amongst the gay crowd. It turns out that most gay men don’t like bi-sexual guys. It seems as if they believe a bi-sexual man is really a gay person who refuses to accept his sexual preferences, or to make a firm commitment to the lifestyle. Billy, however, has no problem with his sexual preferences. He likes both men and women, and isn’t afraid to admit it.
When the AIDs epidemic breaks out in the early eighties, Billy finds himself unable to get involved with helping those who have the disease and eventually die from it. He sees many of his former lovers pass away, but still remains an outsider. He doesn’t understand why he feels this sense of not being attached to the other men, but he is. In time, however, he’s inadvertently drawn in by those from his past. It doesn’t change his feelings about the suffering and inhumanity of this terrible disease, but it does give him a better understanding of his own personal loss and of the road less travelled.
Returning to his hometown to live when he’s in his sixties, Billy learns of the death of more of his friends and attempts to move on by becoming a part-time teacher at the academy. In truth, he finds himself taking up for a gay boy against a bunch of bullies, refusing to back down and finally able to use the infamous wrestling move (the duck-under) that was taught to him by Miss Frost, an ex-wrestler, and Coach Hoyt. Billy also learns that he has much more clout as a teacher at the academy, than as an outsider and so joins the staff. He inadvertently finds himself protecting those who need his assistance like Miss Frost once protected him. In a sense, everything comes full circle.
I believe what most individuals will walk away with after reading In One Person, is a clearer understanding that it’s the journey and not the destination that’s truly important. We’re born, we live for so many years and have so many experiences, and then we die. The important thing is what we do with the time in between birth and death, and how we choose to treat those around us.
The author, John Irving, is certainly a master of prose, using words to weave a compelling story of a boy’s journey into manhood as he attempts to discover who he is and how his past has affected him. The wonderful thing about Mr. Irving’s novels is that he causes the reader to care about the characters and in many ways to see themselves within the story. You laugh, you cry, you get angry and want retribution, you forgive, but most of all, you learn to be tolerant of all the intolerances you encountered within the pages.
You see, Mr. Irving is still a teacher at heart and uses words to instill within a reader a profound sense of empathy for those around him. To read one of John Irving’s novels is to experience life in all its glory and misery, reaching that last page with a clearer understanding of what it means to be human.
This is the author’s gift to mankind.