“A compelling novel of desire, secrecy, and sexual identity, In One Person is a story of unfulfilled love– tormented, funny, and affecting–an impassioned embrace of our sexual differences.” (Simon & Schuster book jacket)
I took this picture as I skipped out of McIntyre’s Books in Fearrington Village on my lunch break. I anticipated the release of this book the way that people anticipate the release of things like Twilight movies, or tickets to a U2 concert or something. Seriously, I don’t understand why people weren’t throwing those midnight release parties like they did for all the Harry Potter books. I would have gone dressed either as Jenny Fields (The World According to Garp) or Susie the Bear (The Hotel New Hampshire). Maybe that’s what I love so much about John Irving–I feel like he’s created a world in novels like Garp that are just as rich, albeit dark, as the fantastic worlds created by J.K. Rowling or Ursula Le Guin. Everything in the world according to John Irving happens for a reason, it’s justifiable, it’s symmetrical. It might be heartbreaking, but it somehow seems right. Cosmically fated. The only things that don’t fit that bill are, sadly, things that actually happened.
Although In One Person is a novel of “sexual suspects” like The World According to Garp, the sexual suspects of In One Person are never recognized and brought into mainstream acceptance on as large a scale as Jenny Fields (author of the non-fiction bestseller by the title A Sexual Suspect) or Roberta Muldoon (former tight-end for the Philadelphia Eagles). The sexual suspects of In One Person are bisexual men, transvestites; they’re suspect even to the world of homosexual men. The novel follows the life of one bisexual man, Billy Abbot, from childhood to old age. It becomes obvious early in the novel that Billy’s young life is on a crash course with the AIDS epidemic. When it arrives, the horrifying reality of AIDS decimates Billy’s contemporaries. He survives uninfected, but not unaffected. Billy Abbot finds a place for himself in a small town in Vermont, where he settles into old age as a sort of mentor for other young sexual suspects at a private boarding school. The novel is made up of misfits, people who don’t fit in, people who are tolerated until they step beyond the bounds that society has set for them. This fact is made painfully clear through the stories of two transvestites who arguably steal the show from the novel’s protagonist.
Coincidentally, In One Person was released on May 8th, the same day that North Carolina voted to uphold an amendment to our state constitution that would define marriage as a union between one man and one woman. Although John Irving can certainly be considered a political author (The Cider House Rules, anyone?), I think this novel does a lot more than make a political statement. In an interview, Irving describes his ideas for novels “like trains in a station,” emphasizing the fact that he never knows which will come up next. It strikes me that the idea for In One Person came up when it did. I’d like to conclude that the idea of the “sexual suspect” has become less potent since the 1978 publication of The World According to Garp, but I’m afraid it’s still very much a part of my generation’s story.
This is number one of my fifty books, and I wouldn’t dream of choosing another one. (Also, yes, I did start this book in May, but I just now finished it. Have you ever loved a book so much that you avoided reading it too fast so that it wouldn’t be over too soon?) I would hand this novel to anyone with a smile and warmhearted praise for an author who has, once again, created characters that I will never forget, and a story that reminded me of my faith in the ability of art to change perceptions and require tolerance.