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Review: 'In One Person' by John Irving

The author's 13th novel is a story about AIDS, sexual identity and the loss that comes with growing up, but its general tone of acceptance means that its characters' struggles aren't too difficult.

May 13, 2012|By David L. Ulin | Tribune newspapers
  (Joe Morse, For The Times )

In One Person

A Novel

John Irving

Simon & Schuster: 426 pp., $28

Late in John Irving's 13th novel, "In One Person," the narrator, an aging writer named William Abbott, recalls visiting a high school friend dying of AIDS. It's the early 1980s, the beginning of the AIDS crisis, and Irving evokes the deathly terrors of that period, a time when people seemed, literally, to evaporate, to become, in the words of the late David Wojnarowicz, "a dark smudge in the air that dissipates without notice … glass human[s] disappearing in rain."

As Abbott shares with his friend's 15-year-old son the story of a summer trip to Europe, the boy's mother interrupts from the other room: "Peter! … Come here — let your father rest!" It's an arresting moment, not least for what the friend is asking: that Abbott look out for his child after he and his wife (whom he's infected) are gone.

Abbott and the dying man had a fling during that long-ago European summer, which brings an undertone of complicity, and recrimination, to the scene. And yet, there's something else at work, some sense that the moment isn't quite authentic, that the situation, if not necessarily the emotions, have been staged. It's all in the timing, the way Abbott is barely allowed to get started: "It was entirely orchestrated — the whole thing was rehearsed. You know that, don't you, Billy?" asks another friend, Elaine, who has accompanied him.

As for why this resonates, I want to posit that it tells us something about "In One Person" — not the plot of the novel so much as the mechanics of the plot, the construction of a narrative that itself seems orchestrated and rehearsed. This may not be Irving's intention, but the deeper we get into the novel, the less we believe it, seeing the people here as not quite three-dimensional, manqués for the larger issues the book means to address.

In brief: Abbott is bisexual with an attraction to men, women and transsexuals. Growing up in the 1950s in the town of First Sister, Vt., he is surrounded by a surprisingly gender-fluid cast of characters, from his Grandpa Harry, a cross-dresser who plays female characters in the local theater, to Miss Frost, the mannish town librarian, whose reserved demeanor masks the open secret of her past.

This being a John Irving novel, there is the usual medley of wrestling, family dysfunction and single parenthood; there are scenes set in Vienna, and much of the book, like "The World According to Garp" before it, takes place at a New England boarding school. At times, the whole thing feels like a mash-up, drawing elements from "Garp," "The Hotel New Hampshire" and "A Widow for One Year," although it doesn't reframe those novels so much as it refracts them, tracing an unlikely line through territory we've seen before.

That is — or should be — a good thing, a writer revisiting his material from a different angle, turning (or re-turning) it over and over, seeing it through a fresh lens. But "In One Person" never delivers on that sense of freshness, settling for a posture of contrivance instead. This starts with First Sister, a town, like many in Irving's fiction, where eccentrics are tolerated, embraced even, and the values of community outweigh those of the status quo. It's a nice sentiment, if unrealistic, and it casts the entire novel in a sentimental glow.

"In One Person" may be a book about AIDS, about sexual identity and the loss that accompanies growing up, but its overriding tone of acceptance means that the struggles of its characters, especially Abbott, never seem particularly fraught. "Billy, Billy — you've done nothing wrong!" a boarding school teacher tells him when he confesses that he has crushes on men and women, an enlightened perspective for 1950s New England and one that smoothes out the complexities of the situation, leaving little but a kind of social correctness behind.

Don't get me wrong: I agree with Irving here, as I do with pretty much everything he has to say about sexuality. I'm respectful of the guts it takes for a mainstream novelist to embrace sexual politics in this culture, even as it saddens me that this is still the case. It's stunning that, in 2012, we are still having these conversations, that we don't accept, as a matter of course, the right of everyone to love whom they choose. But we don't — just look at the vote this past week in North Carolina against not only gay marriage but also civil unions, and President Obama's subsequent statement in favor of gay marriage — and to suggest otherwise is disingenuous. That's a key problem with "In One Person," that it makes sexuality seem too easy, when everything we know about the society in which we live tells us that it remains otherwise.

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