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In One Person


In One Person

A book collection of any widely read fan of contemporary American literature would not be complete without at least one John Irving title. Well, that’s my humble opinion. And I have six of them because Irving is among the authors whose works I simply cannot part with. I will, on rare occasion, loan one out to a trustworthy friend whose address and phone number are etched in my brain’s memory banks (or my computer’s). Also etched in my memory are those classic, quotable, meaningful catchphrases for which Irving is famous, such as “Sorrow floats” and “Keep passing the open windows.” I can recall not only the books in which these simple lines appeared, but also who said them and under what circumstances.

"Irving compassionately brings us pathos, humor, awareness, sorrow and joy. This is an important book, tenderly written about an important and not-so-distant taboo subject."

And so it is that IN ONE PERSON not only provides us with another quotable thought, but Irving relies heavily on summoning Shakespeare, Ibsen, Flaubert and James Baldwin to construct what many are already hailing as his most complex and perhaps controversial novel in his long and distinguished career.

Billie Abbott is the only son of a single mother in a small Vermont town called First Sister in the early 1960s. His absent father, who married his mother and then went off to World War II, is a shadowy figure whose identity and whereabouts are closely guarded by the family and unknown to Billie. First Sister is one of those postcard-perfect villages where the local industry consists of a private boy’s boarding school and, in this forested part of the state, a lumbering company. Billie’s grandfather owns the lumber mill, and his uncle is on staff at the private school, offering Billie the same privileges enjoyed by the wealthy boarders.

Billie’s single mother is the prompter for the amateur theater where his grandfather, whose business partner is the playhouse director, casts him in starring roles. The director, a dour Scandinavian, tends to produce plays by Ibsen and Shakespeare. Because of the overabundance of young boys in the tiny community, he casts males in feminine roles, as in Shakespeare’s time. Billie’s grandfather usually nabs all the female starring roles, from Ophelia and Lady MacBeth to the suicidal and liberated Nora in Ibsen’s A Doll’s House. Despite his lumberjack outer persona, he loves dressing in his wife’s clothes, much to the distaste of several of the townspeople, who still flock to the theatrical productions --- the only entertainment in the remote community --- tsk-tsking at Grandpa Harry’s onstage prancing.

Surrounded by this eclectic atmosphere, Billie is an avid reader of books well beyond his years, available only in the public library where he meets and develops one of his “crushes on the wrong people”: the beautiful and enigmatic librarian, Miss Frost. At age 13, Billie seems to have several crushes on many wrong people, among them his new stepfather, an actor and drama teacher at the school and a champion wrestler on the boys school wrestling team. Billie’s greatest need is discovering who he is, or what he is. When he turns to Miss Frost to pour out his internal turmoil, he asks her who she is. She says, “My dear boy, please don’t put a label on me --- don’t make me a category before you get to know me.”    

IN ONE PERSON is written in the first person almost as a memoir of a young boy’s journey into self discovery during the most dangerous times in history for gays and lesbians. A hallmark of Irving’s novels is his exploration of eccentric people living uncommon lives. Any Irving fan will recognize several recurring themes --- wrestling, Vienna, New England, unconventional sex, and, of course, bears. Would it be an Irving novel without bears? 

We travel with Billie from provincial Vermont through New York and San Francisco in the horrendous years of HIV. The initiated of us learn new definitions for common words, like “top” and “bottom.” Irving compassionately brings us pathos, humor, awareness, sorrow and joy. This is an important book, tenderly written about an important and not-so-distant taboo subject. Is it irony, coincidence or both that IN ONE PERSON appears in bookstores just as same-sex marriage becomes a hot political button?

Reviewed by Roz Shea on May 17, 2012

In One Person
by John Irving

  • Publication Date: May 8, 2012
  • Genres: Fiction
  • Hardcover: 448 pages
  • Publisher: Simon & Schuster
  • ISBN-10: 1451664125
  • ISBN-13: 9781451664126