Tuesday, June 5, 2012

In One Person: Sexual Healing?

In many ways, In One Person is the prototypical John Irving novel. It's populated with a folksy cast of characters who all seem to keep secrets from each other (but not maliciously), it takes place in New England and there's lots of wrestling, and the story itself sort of has its own mythology which the plot buildings upon to make for a satisfying conclusion.

And, as you've probably heard or read if you're an Irving fan, this is Irving's "most political novel since The Cider House Rules." But it's political without be preachy. Indeed, the message is simple: Be tolerant of those who are different from you.

The story is of Billy Abbott, a bisexual man trying to make his way through the second half of the twentieth century. The first half of the novel is about Billy as a teenager in 1960s small-town Vermont, as he begins to understand what his "crushes on the wrong people" -- including simultaneous crushes on the town librarian Miss Frost, who herself has a secret, as well as the most popular boy in his school, wrestler, actor, and bully Kittredge -- mean. The unhappy resolutions to these two situations, the full effect of which isn't known until the end of the novel, is what sets in motion Billy's adult life. He goes to Europe and dates women. He deals with the AIDS epidemic in the 1980s, watching many of his childhood friends die, and he publishes several novels, fictionalizing the "plight" of LGBT people. Though Billy is mostly at peace with who he is, how so many different desires can reside in one person, he easily recognizes how others like him are tormented -- and he wants to be helpful to them.

But amidst the relative seriousness of the story given its subject, there's a lot of Irving's signature humor here, too -- Irving's dialogue is often hilariously non-sequitur and some of Billy's misunderstandings about sex are really hard not to giggle at. (He wonders if vaginal sex will be like "having sex with a ballroom" when compared to the man-on-man sex he's used to -- this is a rather explicit novel, to be honest, and not for the squeamish.)

In One Person will never be my favorite Irving novel -- indeed, it's probably only about in the bottom half of the mid-tier of his novels. Still, a so-so John Irving novel is better than 75 percent of all other novels, in my humble view. So if you're a huge Irving fan like me, you'll probably mostly enjoy this, too. I'll give it 3.5-4 stars.

16 comments:

  1. I thought this book sounded so interesting, but since you mentioned it's not his best I am curious, which is your favorite?

    ReplyDelete
    Replies
    1. I know the answer to that, but I'll let Greg tell you :O)

      Delete
  2. I've never read Irving. Where would be a good starting point?

    ReplyDelete
    Replies
    1. My suggestion would be The World According to Garp,it gives you
      a good sense of what Irving's best work is like. Currently,I'm rereading A Widow for One Year,which is one of my favorites and I would also highly recommend The Cider House Rules and A Prayer for Owen Meany.

      Delete
    2. I'd agree with lady t. My favorite is Owen Meany, but really any of those she mentioned are good places to start. A Widow For One Year, I think, is one of his more underrated titles.

      Delete
    3. The World According to Garp & A widow for One Year are my personal favorites and great starting places. I also think The Cider House Rules is a great one!

      Delete
  3. The only John Irving I've read was A Prayer for Owen Meany back in high school and I'm pretty sure it went right over my head. I really should pick up some more of his works because I don't even know what an Irving novel consists of or what should come to mind when I hear the name. This story does sound interesting so maybe it'll be my gateway into more of his works. Great review!

    ReplyDelete
    Replies
    1. I'd actually suggest trying Owen Meany again, or as lady t says, The World According to Garp, or Cider House or Widow - those are my favorites, and all pretty representations of his oeuvre.

      Delete
  4. I read it and didn't love it, but I completely agree with what you said about his bottom tiers still being better than most books. The cross-dressing Grandpa was probably my favorite character.

    ReplyDelete
    Replies
    1. Grandpa Harry is awesome! And Uncle Bob cracked me up, too.

      Delete
  5. The only Irving I've read to date is The World According to Garp. Which I adored -- so much so that I never actually wrote about it, because I just didn't want to process it like that (if that makes any sense). Sounds like maybe I should pick up Widow for One Year or Owen Meany before trying this latest.

    ReplyDelete
  6. I've read two Irving novels: Owen Meany and Cider House Rules. I enjoyed the former far more than the latter so I figure I'm hot and cold on Irving. Think I might pass on this one. Great review!

    ReplyDelete
  7. I tried to read this and it just wasn't clicking with me, but it was my first read of Irving. This is not the first time that I am hearing that it isn't his best work, so I am going to go back and try another. Thank you for sharing your thoughts.

    ReplyDelete
  8. I'm glad to see your review of this book because I've seen relatively little buzz about it. I love Cider House Rules but I've never read more, and this looks like it might be the perfect "more."

    ReplyDelete
  9. As always, I loved this book because I appreciate the manner in which Irving constructs a story. Beyond that, I loved and cared for the characters and in the end, learned a great deal about myself and others. How much more can we ask of one novel?

    ReplyDelete