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In One Person: A Novel Hardcover – May 8, 2012
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Amazon Best Books of the Month, May 2012: Very few authors can create and sustain a cast of unique and unforgettable characters like John Irving. In One Person is a masterfully told story of identity, relationships, and the struggle that comes with living a life outside of the mainstream. The central figure in Irving’s lovely and strange novel is Billy; the narration jumps between different phases of Billy’s life, beginning with his most formative years as a teenager in the 1960’s discovering his bisexuality. Irving doesn’t shy away from the difficulties of sexual exploration and identity, forcing Billy, his friends, and his family (and the reader) to confront and question their beliefs and prejudices. Each new phase of Billy’s life brings new characters into the fold, but everyone serves a purpose and the ending rewards close reading. The world is not a black-and-white place, and Irving’s colorful characters embody all of the shades in-between. --Caley Anderson
An Exclusive Guest Essay from John Irving
In One Person is about a young bisexual man who falls in love with an older transgender woman--Miss Frost, the librarian in a Vermont public library. The bi guy is the main character, but two transgender women are the heroes of this novel--in the sense that these two characters are the ones my bisexual narrator, Billy Abbott, most looks up to.
Billy is not me. He comes from my imagining what I might have been like if I’d acted on all my earliest impulses as a young teenager. Most of us don’t ever act on our earliest sexual imaginings. In fact, most of us would rather forget them--not me. I think our sympathy for others comes, in part, from our ability to remember our feelings--to be honest about what we felt like doing. Certainly, sexual tolerance comes from being honest with ourselves about what we have imagined sexually.
Those adults who are always telling children and young adults to abstain from doing everything--well, they must have never had a childhood or an adolescence (or they’ve conveniently forgotten what they were like when they were young).
When I was a boy, I imagined having sex with my friends’ mothers, with girls my own age--yes, even with certain older boys among my wrestling teammates. It turned out that I liked girls, but the memory of my attractions to the “wrong” people never left me. What I’m saying is that the impulse to bisexuality was very strong; my earliest sexual experiences--more important, my earliest sexual imaginings--taught me that sexual desire is mutable. In fact, in my case--at a most formative age--sexual mutability was the norm. What made me a writer was definitely a combination of what I read and what I imagined--especially, what I imagined sexually.
Billy meets the transgender librarian, Miss Frost, because he goes to the library seeking novels about “crushes on the wrong people.” Miss Frost starts him out with the Brontë sisters--specifically, Wuthering Heights and Jane Eyre. She expresses less confidence in Fielding’s Tom Jones, which she also gives Billy. As she puts it, “If one can count sexual escapades as one result of crushes--"
Later, when Billy has become an avid reader and he returns to the library confessing his crush on an older boy on the wrestling team, Miss Frost--who has earlier given Billy novels by Dickens and Hardy--gives him Baldwin’s Giovanni’s Room. (This is the same night she seduces him.)
“We are formed by what we desire,” Billy tells us--in the first paragraph of the first chapter. He adds: “I desired to become a writer and to have sex with Miss Frost—not necessarily in that order.”
Later in the novel, Billy realizes this about himself: “I knew that no one person could rescue me from wanting to have sex with men and women.”
My first-person novels are confessional stories about sexually taboo subjects. The 158-Pound Marriage is about wife-swapping. The narrator of The Hotel New Hampshire is incestuously in love with his sister. Johnny Wheelwright, the narrator of A Prayer for Owen Meany, is called (behind his back) a “nonpracticing homosexual”; his love for Owen Meany is repressed. I always saw Johnny as a deeply closeted homosexual who would never come out. In One Person is a much shorter novel than Owen Meany, and Billy is an easier first-person voice to be in--Billy is very out.
Billy says: “I wanted to look like a gay boy--or enough like one to make other gay boys, and men, look twice at me. But I wanted the girls and women to wonder about me--to make them look twice at me, too. I wanted to retain something provocatively masculine in my appearance.” Billy remembers when he is cast as Ariel in The Tempest, and Richard (the director) tells him that Ariel’s gender is “mutable.” (Richard tells Billy that the sex of angels is mutable, too.) Billy later says: “I suppose I was trying to look sexually mutable, to capture something of Ariel’s unresolved sexuality.” He concludes: “There is no one way to look bisexual, but that was the look I sought.”
Billy doesn’t start out so sure of himself. “You’re a man, aren’t you?” he asks Miss Frost, when he discovers that she used to be a man. “You’re a transsexual!” he tells her, accusingly.
Miss Frost speaks sharply to him: “My dear boy, please don’t put a label on me--don’t make me a category before you get to know me!”
As Billy learns--in part, from being bisexual--our genders and orientations do not define us. We are somehow greater than our sexual identities, but our sexual identities matter.
"This tender exploration of nascent desire, of love and loss, manages to be sweeping, brilliant, political, provocative, tragic, and funny—it is precisely the kind of astonishing alchemy we associate with a John Irving novel. The unfolding of the AIDS epidemic in the United States in the '80s was the defining moment for me as a physician. With my patients’ deaths, almost always occurring in the prime of life, I would find myself cataloging the other losses—namely, what these people might have offered society had they lived the full measure of their days: their art, their literature, the children they might have raised. In One Person is the novel that for me will define that era. 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
"In One Person is a novel that makes you proud to be human. It is a book that not only accepts but also loves our differences. From the beginning of his career, Irving has always cherished our peculiarities—in a fierce, not a saccharine, way. Now he has extended his sympathies—and ours—still further into areas that even the misfits eschew. Anthropologists say that the interstitial—whatever lies between two familiar opposites—is usually declared either taboo or sacred. John Irving in this magnificent novel—his best and most passionate since The World According to Garp—has sacralized what lies between polarizing genders and orientations. And have I mentioned it is also a gripping page-turner and a beautifully constructed work of art?"
— Edmund White
"His most daringly political, sexually transgressive, and moving novel in well over a decade."—Vanity Fair
"A brave and affecting depiction of how in one life (sexual and otherwise) we contain multitudes."—Elle
“In One Person is a rich and absorbing book, even beautiful.”—Esquire
“[In One Person] is a staggeringly ambitious work, and its success reaffirms Irving’s place among our greatest working novelists.” —BookPage (Fiction Top Pick, May 2012)
“Few writers can craft misfits with the tenderness of Irving, and this tragicomic portrait of a bisexual man is a masterpiece of sympathy and imagination.”—Departures
“Gorgeous…Irving remains a master builder when it comes to constructing an epic plot filled with satisfying twists.” –Entertainment Weekly
“It is impossible to imagine the American – or international – literary landscape without John Irving….He has sold tens of millions of copies of his books, books that have earned descriptions like epic and extraordinary and controversial and sexually brave. And yet, unlike so many writers in the contemporary canon, he manages to write books that are both critically acclaimed and beloved for their sheer readability. He is as close as one gets to a contemporary Dickens in the scope of his celebrity and the level of his achievement.” —Time
Top customer reviews
by John Irving
Right away I should tell you that John Irving is one of my favorite authors. I think that he has a real knack for creating unique, yet believable situations, and presenting them in grand and sweeping prose.
In One Person met my expectations. I'm a sucker for beautiful language, and Irving is a modern-day Dickens--master of the written word.
His characters are rich and colorful, full of passion and depth and flaws. They feel like people you could know, or maybe that you already met at some time in your life. In particular, the sad moments in the book really moved me. I could feel it along with them.
Okay, so the novel isn't his most original work. Lots of subjects are present that he has tapped on before: adolescent self-discovery, wrestling, sexual exploration and themes, and a quirkiness that isn't for all readers. It's still a damn good read though.
Some of Irving's books are considered controversial, and this is no different. If sexual orientation, or gender confusion, are topics that you don't want to see in a book, then keep your distance ... this one isn't for you.
The landscape behind the characters addresses the AIDS situation from the 1980s. Both this book, and Dallas Buyers Club, gave me perspectives of the epidemic that I hadn't seen, only being in my mid teens by the end of that decade.
Overall, I really enjoyed the book and if he hadn't reheated a few of his themes from previous novels, it would have easily been 5 stars for me. Definitely worth your time if the topics and style of writing appeal to you.
At the heart of this novel is Billy Abbott. In the present day, Billy is nearly seventy, but as the novel opens, he's reflecting upon his sexual and creative awakening at the age of 13 upon meeting the town librarian. "And this moment of my sexual awakening also marked the fitful birth of my imagination. We are formed by what we desire. In less than a minute of excited, secretive longing, I desired to become a writer and to have sex with Miss Frost--not necessarily in that order."
Miss Frost, it turns out, is not your typical small town librarian, and Billy's youthful crush upon her has long-lasting impact on the adult he becomes. But Billy is prone to "crushes on the wrong people." By which he means boys. As he matures, Billy discovers that he likes boys, girls, and has a real soft spot for transsexuals. Being a bisexual male is harder even than being a gay male; he finds that partners of both genders never fully trust him. And as he embarks upon relationships throughout his life, Billy despairs that any one person will ever meet all of his needs.
Along the way, we meet Billy's friends, lovers, relatives, enemies, and passing acquaintances. Billy's reflections are not always linear, and people move in and out of his life and circle back around again. Some are gone but are never forgotten. Much of the novel focuses on Billy's coming of age and quest for sexual identity as he matriculates at the all-boys Favorite River Academy, the New England prep school where his stepfather teaches. Does that sound familiar? Many of the expected Irvingian tropes are present. Wikipedia keeps a handy chart of them, and those checked off for this book are: New England, wrestling, Vienna, deadly accident, absent parent, filmmaking/screenwriting, and writers. Alas, the only bears this time around are of the gay male variety.
Surely the most affecting section of the novel deals with the AIDS crisis of the 80s and 90s. The storytelling is powerful, wrenching, and unforgettable. Countering that is the abundant humor found in other sections of this novel. In One Person may be Irving's most overtly comic novel in years. Much amusement is mined from life in Billy's hometown, First Sister, Vermont, and its thriving amateur theatrical group. The theatrical sections of the novel, while providing ample metaphors for the roles we find ourselves playing throughout life, also feature a riotous cast of characters--none more so than Billy's flamboyantly cross-dressing Grandpa Harry, who snags all the best female roles. Their production of The Tempest, in which Billy is notably cast as the androgynous (or "sexually mutable") Ariel, seemed like a direct homage to writer Robertson Davies, who Irving has long admired. (See Tempest-Tost (Modern Classics (Penguin)).) And that is but one of the many literary references liberally salted throughout the text.
I see many comparing In One Person to The World According to Garp (Modern Library) and The Cider House Rules: A Novel (Modern Library), two of Irving's best novels, and I can certainly see the overlapping themes and reasons why. However, for me, this novel immediately brought back my favorite novel of all time, A Prayer for Owen Meany: A Novel. This is Irving's first novel since Owen Meany written in the first person. The voice of Billy Abbott is nothing like that of Johnny Wheelwright, and yet they both share the voice of John Irving which is utterly distinctive, and one that I shall never grow tired of reading.
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.