Look closely at the provocative image on the cover of John Irving’s new novel, “In One Person.” It depicts a slender, nearly bare-backed person either hooking or unhooking a bra. Context suggests that the photographer’s model is a woman, but the hands may be a little large. The shoulder blades are widely spaced, the left hip slender. This seemingly straightforward photo turns out to be completely ambiguous about gender and sexual identity.
It’s a very smart encapsulation of a less smart, much windier book about what it means to be bisexual, famous, writerly and afflicted with whatever tics and whimsies plague the characters in all 12 of Mr. Irving’s other novels. Both the good and bad news about “In One Person” is that it strongly recalls the most popular of these books, bears and wrestling and all.
It is indeed a return to form for Mr. Irving to bring on the italics, exclamation points, bizarre quirks and rampant adorability of “The World According to Garp” (1978), “The Hotel New Hampshire” (1981) and “The Cider House Rules” (1985), to name the old books that this new one most resembles. It is also a return to form for Mr. Irving to entertain and exasperate in equal measure. What’s impressive about “In One Person” is its open fascination with bisexuality, cross-dressing, the politics of gender bending and the ravages of the AIDS epidemic. What’s detrimental is the broad fancifulness of the clowning.
Spoiler alert: It’s impossible to capture the true nature of “In One Person” without citing some of the coincidences that this book manufactures. These begin at a time when the main character, Billy Abbott, is an impressionable, bra-wearing boy in his young teens. Although “In One Person” is narrated by the adult Billy, who has become a famous Irving-like writer named William Abbott and is nearly 70, the book quickly summons his extreme innocence in the presence of a librarian called Miss Frost. Billy adores Miss Frost’s style of femininity long after the reader has been repeatedly made to notice her large hands, small breasts, broad shoulders and surprisingly deep-timbred laughter.
It is Miss Frost to whom Billy comes when he wants to ask why he sometimes feels “crushes on the wrong people.” And it is Miss Frost who makes Billy see that there are no wrong people, just small-minded gossips who can’t understand unconventional sexual yearnings. Those small-minded types are of all sexual persuasions: one of the book’s points is that straight and gay people are apt to be skeptical about bisexuality. To Mr. Irving’s credit Billy is drawn as a person who follows his true nature, whether the consequences are zany or (less often) profound. When Miss Frost helps Billy discover James Baldwin’s “Giovanni’s Room,” Baldwin’s impact on this lonely boy is immense.
If only Billy were quicker on the uptake. And if only this were not a book that joked about Billy’s lisping pronunciation of penis (the plural sounds like “penith-zizzes”), fetishized his bra wearing (instant overkill) or found something meaningful in the way characters garble sexual references that upset them. On one occasion “No one’s giving me an orgasm anytime soon” is misheard as “No nun’s liver goes into spasm for a raccoon.” On another, Billy and his best female friend, Elaine, have the following exchange, italics and all:
“I love your vagina!”
“You’re not just saying that, are you, Billy?”
“No! I think your vagina is perfect!”
Mr. Irving has always had fans who find themselves in stitches over stuff like that.
The people Billy knows as a small-town Vermont schoolboy wind up dominating his entire adult life. The gleeful spirit of his cross-dressing Grandpa Harry stays with the book, as does Harry’s love of the theater (and particular love of playing female roles). The many productions of Shakespeare, directed by Billy’s stepfather, Richard Abbott, also leave their mark. (The extremely apt title “In One Person” comes from “Richard II.”) The mysterious identity of Billy’s real father will come back to haunt the book. The cruel and handsome bully, Jacques Kittredge, is as easily second-guessed as Miss Frost, but he casts a long shadow over weaker boys.
Those weaker boys reappear to enormous effect in the part of the novel that describes the devastation of AIDS. This material is so powerful and suffused with medical gravitas that it dwarfs the book’s workaday antics. (Mr. Irving has credited the doctor and professor who wrote “Cutting for Stone,” his friend Abraham Verghese, for helping provide details about the illness.)
The Irving italics mercifully vanish when a couple of high school classmates are on their deathbeds. The cough of one dying man’s wife discreetly signals that their children will be orphaned. The way another schoolmate’s mother commits suicide by syringe after losing her son is equally devastating. And Billy’s boyhood thought that “The Tempest” goes on too long is painfully repudiated. Witnessing the ravages of AIDS on their noblest old friends, Billy and Elaine grasp what Prospero’s “Now my charms are all o’erthrown” really means.
If “In One Person” were more coherent, Mr. Irving would not deliver his toughest punches from atop a soapbox. His blunt politicking for full understanding of gay and transgendered identity sits uncomfortably with his zany side. It’s hard to fathom how these extremes exist in one person at all.
This book’s noblest creation is a present-day college student, Gee, who is halfway between genders and confident about making a drastic surgical change. Gee’s fearlessness is enough to recast Billy’s own closeted adolescence as ancient history and to rekindle the aging Billy’s desire to help others. Yet Gee’s guts and decency must coexist with Mr. Irving’s ludicrous, crazy and much more characteristic tale about two men who met while sliding around the toilets of a seaborne military vessel during World War II, slapping bare flesh against the plumbing while discussing “Madame Bovary.” Thanks to this episode they fell madly in love. And although Billy doesn’t know it until very late in the novel, they are a big part of his life.
One of them, now in his 80s, supposedly wows Spanish cabaret crowds while wearing a girdle and proclaiming, “Imagine meeting the love of your life on a toilet!” When he jokes about getting seasick, the crowd echoes him with cries of “Vómito!” No one will mistake this for the best part of the book.