Nowhere is this more troublesome than when it comes to Jacques Kittredge, a prep school golden boy who is in his way the id to Abbott's ego, although their relationship is never fully clear. Wrestler, actor, teenage Lothario, he occupies the emotional center of the novel, the object of crushes by Abbott and his friend Elaine (whose mother is the teacher to whom Abbott confesses). If Kittredge rebuffs them both at first, he later grows to share "their sad envy, [their] familiar and pathetic longing."
Theater is the tool of this realignment; indeed, the very notion of drama, with its role reversals, its costumes and performance, becomes a metaphor for the shifting realities of the world. Irving highlights that by casting Kittredge, Abbott and Elaine in a series of Shakespeare plays, using the similarities — "Don't you see, Bill?" Grandpa Harry explains. "Viola is a cross-dresser. That's what got Shakespeare in trouble!" — to reflect on his text.
And yet, here as well, things happen too easily, without the necessary friction to make us care. After Abbott's first sexual experience ends in embarrassed exposure, it is Kittredge who embraces him. "Way to go, Nymph!" he declares. "I am so impressed with you — you are my new hero!" Abbott is skeptical; "I knew enough to be careful," he tells us. "With Kittredge, you were never sure where the conversation was headed." Still, there is no fallout, no moment when the narrative turns. Later, we discover the reason for this: Kittredge too is sexually conflicted … or not quite conflicted (there is hardly enough conflict in this novel). It's a nice idea, yet like so much, it seems to come out of nowhere, to have more to do with the point Irving wants to make than the story he is trying to tell.
In the end, this is where "In One Person" stumbles, when it tries to fuse social commentary with art. That isn't to say one can't write a political novel, but the politics have to emerge from the characters, not the other way around. There's much to admire about Irving's willingness to stake out a position here, as he has — "Garp" is, among other things, a novel about women's rights, while "The Cider House Rules," his greatest book, revolves around an abortion provider — throughout his career. Yet as much as I share his view, I wish he'd paid closer attention to the tensions, to the complications, of growing up as a sexual outsider in a culture where the desires and the pleasures of the body are still anathema.