Prep school. Wrestling. Unconventional sexual practices. Viennese interlude. This bill of particulars could only fit one American author: John Irving. His 13th novel (after Last Night in Twisted River) tells the oftentimes outrageous story of bisexual novelist Billy Abbott, who comes of age in the uptight 1950s and explores his sexuality through two decadent decades into the plague-ridden 1980s and finally to a more positive present day. Sexual confusion sets in early for Billy, simultaneously attracted to both the local female librarian and golden boy wrestler Jacques Kittredge, who treats Billy with the same disdain he shows Billy’s best friend (and occasional lover) Elaine. Faced with an unsympathetic mother and an absent father who might have been gay, Billy travels to Europe, where he has affairs with a transgendered female and an older male poet, an early AIDS activist. Irving’s take on the AIDS epidemic in New York is not totally persuasive (not enough confusion, terror, or anger), and his fractured time and place doesn’t allow him to generate the melodramatic string of incidents that his novels are famous for. In the end, sexual secrets abound in this novel, which intermittently touches the heart as it fitfully illuminates the mutability of human desire. Agent: Dean Cooke, the Cooke Agency. (May)
The New York Times Book Review
In One Person gives a lot. It's funny, as you would expect. It's risky in what it exposes.…Tolerance, in a John Irving novel, is not about anything goes. It's what happens when we face our own desires honestly, whether we act on them or not.”
What is "normal"? Does it really matter? In Irving's latest novel (after Last Night in Twisted River), nearly everyone has a secret, but the characters who embrace and accept their own differences and those of others are the most content. This makes the narrator, Bill, particularly appealing. Bill knows from an early age that he is bisexual, even if he doesn't label himself as such. He has "inappropriate crushes" but doesn't make himself miserable denying that part of himself; he simply acts, for better or for worse. The reader meets Bill at 15, living on the campus of an all-boys school in Vermont where his stepfather is on the faculty. Through the memories of a much older Bill, his life story is revealed, from his teenage years in Vermont to college and life as a writer in New York City. Bill is living in New York during the 1980s, at the height of the AIDS epidemic, and the suffering described is truly heart-wrenching. Irving cares deeply, and the novel is not just Bill's story but a human tale. VERDICT This wonderful blend of thought-provoking, well-constructed, and meaningful writing is what one has come to expect of Irving, and it also makes for an enjoyable page-turner. [See Prepub Alert, 11/28/11.]—Shaunna Hunter, Hampden-Sydney Coll. Lib., VA
Billy Dean (aka Billy Abbott) has a difficult time holding it together in one person, for his bisexuality pulls him in (obviously) two different directions. Billy comes of age in what is frequently, and erroneously, billed as a halcyon and more innocent age, the 1950s. The object of his first love--or at least his first "sexual awakening"-- is Miss Frost, the librarian at the municipal library in the small town of First Sister, Vt. While Miss Frost's small breasts and large hands might have been a tip-off--and the fact that in a previous life she had been known as Al Frost--Billy doesn't quite get it until several years later, when the librarian seduces him. At almost the same time he becomes aware of Miss Frost as an erotic object, he develops an adolescent attraction to Jacques Kittredge, athlete and general Golden Boy at the academy they attend. And Billy also starts to have conflicted feelings toward Elaine, daughter of a voice teacher attached to the academy. (As Irving moves back and forth over the different phases of Billy's sexual life, we find he later consummates, but not happily, his relationship with Elaine.) We also learn of Billy's homoerotic relationships with Tom, a college friend, and with Larry, a professor Billy had studied with overseas. And all of these sexual attractions and compulsions play out against the background of Billy's unconventional family (his grandfather was known for his convincing portrayals of Shakespeare heroines--and he began to dress these parts offstage as well) and local productions of Shakespeare and Ibsen. Woody Allen's bon mot about bisexuality is that it doubled one's chances for a date, but in this novel Irving explores in his usual discursive style some of the more serious and exhaustive consequences of Allen's one-liner.
…the sophisticated and garish elements of In One Person are laced together in an act of literary transvestism…[the] wonderful first section of the novel shows what a ringmaster Irving can be. His looping chronology gives the impression of aimless digression only until we catch up and find him on the trail of some larger truth. The story swings confidently from the burlesque comedy of Billy's dolled-up grandfather to the poignant anxiety of the boy's sexual confusion. And it's full of insights about classic theatre and novels, all gracefully integrated into Billy's struggle to figure out what kind of person he is.
The Washington Post
In its fierceness and its joyfulness, In One Person has the feeling of The World According to Garp…In One Person gives a lot. It's funny, as you would expect. It's risky in what it exposes.
The New York Times Book Review
The Washington Post
“There’s a talent at work in this brave new novel that — as Prospero said — ‘frees all faults.’ ”
The New York Times Book Review - Jeanette Winterson
“In One Person gives a lot. It’s funny, as you would expect. It’s risky in what it exposes.…Tolerance, in a John Irving novel, is not about anything goes. It’s what happens when we face our own desires honestly, whether we act on them or not.”
From the Publisher
#1 NATIONAL BESTSELLER
FINALIST 2013 – Lambda Literary Bisexual Literature Award
“This searching, deeply affecting novel…reaffirms the centrality of Irving as the voice of social justice and compassion in contemporary American literature. His work has been indispensible over the past four decades, and it will prove more important, more urgently resonant and more prescient, in the decades to come.”
—Steven Hayward, The Globe and Mail
“At once intimate and epic, broadly funny and emotionally piercing.... Irving is simply doing what he has always done, and what he does best: telling a bold, quirky, fundamentally human story, bigger than life.”
—The Vancouver Sun
“A rich and absorbing book, even beautiful, and probably the most different book of Irving’s long career.”
“Irving at his best: unbearably sad, unforgettably narrated, painfully human.”
“Billy Abbott is a character to set alongside those indelible Irving creations of the past, Garp and Owen Meany and Homer Wells.... You root for him from the outset. And when his story visits on him some of the more outrageous fates that Irving can conjure, you don’t give up on him…. It is another of this writer’s bold hymns to individuality, to the great American quest of self-discovery.... As the book triumphantly suggests, difference is one problem shared by everybody.”
“In One Person, as a story about sexual differences among people, has real potential to help effect positive change for gay and trans people, especially in the US. This is the novel I selfishly wish Irving had written 25 years ago.”
“Irving’s gift is to make us care about characters that mainstream society relegates to the margins…. Heart-rending. Irving fans will welcome In One Person .”
“Irving is a master at getting his sense of place to feel special…. Ribald, engaging, measured and slightly eccentric. In other words, it’s John Irving being John Irving.”
“In its fierceness and its joyfulness, In One Person has the feeling of The World According to Garp.... In One Person gives a lot. It’s funny, as you would expect. It’s risky in what it exposes.”
—Jeanette Winterson, The New York Times Book Review
“This tender exploration of nascent desire, of love and loss, manages to be sweeping, brilliant, political, provocative, tragic, and funny—it is precisely the kind of astonishing alchemy we associate with a John Irving novel. The unfolding of the AIDS epidemic in the United States in the ’80s was the defining moment for me as a physician. With my patients’ deaths, almost always occurring in the prime of life, I would find myself cataloging the other losses—namely, what these people might have offered society had they lived the full measure of their days: their art, their literature, the children they might have raised. In One Person is the novel that for me will define that era. A profound truth is arrived at in these pages. It is Irving at his most daring, at his most ambitious. It is America and American writing, both at their very best.”
—Abraham Verghese, author of Cutting for Stone and My Own Country
“In One Person is a novel that makes you proud to be human. It is a book that not only accepts but also loves our differences. From the beginning of his career, Irving has always cherished our peculiarities—in a fierce, not a saccharine, way. Now he has extended his sympathies—and ours—still further into areas that even the misfits eschew. Anthropologists say that the interstitial—whatever lies between two familiar opposites—is usually declared either taboo or sacred. John Irving in this magnificent novel—his best and most passionate since The World According to Garp—has sacralized what lies between polarizing genders and orientations. And have I mentioned it is also a gripping page-turner and a beautifully constructed work of art?”
—Edmund White, author of City Boy and Genet: A Biography
Read an Excerpt
I’m going to begin by telling you about Miss Frost. While I say to everyone that I became a writer because I read a certain novel by Charles Dickens at the formative age of fifteen, the truth is I was younger than that when I first met Miss Frost and imagined having sex with her, and this moment of my sexual awakening also marked the fitful birth of my imagination. We are formed by what we desire. In less than a minute of excited, secretive longing, I desired to become a writer and to have sex with Miss Frost—not necessarily in that order.
I met Miss Frost in a library. I like libraries, though I have difficulty pronouncing the word—both the plural and the singular. It seems there are certain words I have considerable trouble pronouncing: nouns, for the most part—people, places, and things that have caused me preternatural excitement, irresolvable conflict, or utter panic. Well, that is the opinion of various voice teachers and speech therapists and psychiatrists who’ve treated me—alas, without success. In elementary school, I was held back a grade due to “severe speech impairments”—an overstatement. I’m now in my late sixties, almost seventy; I’ve ceased to be interested in the cause of my mispronunciations. (Not to put too fine a point on it, but fuck the etiology.)
I don’t even try to say the etiology word, but I can manage to struggle through a comprehensible mispronunciation of library or libraries—the botched word emerging as an unknown fruit. (“Liberry,” or “liberries,” I say—the way children do.)
It’s all the more ironic that my first library was undistinguished. This was the public library in the small town of First Sister, Vermont—a compact red-brick building on the same street where my grandparents lived. I lived in their house on River Street—until I was fifteen, when my mom remarried. My mother met my stepfather in a play.
The town’s amateur theatrical society was called the First Sister Players; for as far back as I can remember, I saw all the plays in our town’s little theater. My mom was the prompter—if you forgot your lines, she told you what to say. (It being an amateur theater, there were a lot of forgotten lines.) For years, I thought the prompter was one of the actors—someone mysteriously offstage, and not in costume, but a necessary contributor to the dialogue.
My stepfather was a new actor in the First Sister Players when my mother met him. He had come to town to teach at Favorite River Academy—the almost-prestigious private school, which was then all boys. For much of my young life (most certainly, by the time I was ten or eleven), I must have known that eventually, when I was “old enough,” I would go to the academy. There was a more modern and better-lit library at the prep school, but the public library in the town of First Sister was my first library, and the librarian there was my first librarian. (Incidentally, I’ve never had any trouble saying the librarian word.)
Needless to say, Miss Frost was a more memorable experience than the library. Inexcusably, it was long after meeting her that I learned her first name. Everyone called her Miss Frost, and she seemed to me to be my mom’s age—or a little younger—when I belatedly got my first library card and met her. My aunt, a most imperious person, had told me that Miss Frost “used to be very good-looking,” but it was impossible for me to imagine that Miss Frost could ever have been better-looking than she was when I met her—notwithstanding that, even as a kid, all I did was imagine things. My aunt claimed that the available men in the town used to fall all over themselves when they met Miss Frost. When one of them got up the nerve to introduce himself—to actually tell Miss Frost his name—the then-beautiful librarian would look at him coldly and icily say, “My name is Miss Frost. Never been married, never want to be.”
With that attitude, Miss Frost was still unmarried when I met her; inconceivably, to me, the available men in the town of First Sister had long stopped introducing themselves to her.
THE CRUCIAL DICKENS NOVEL
THE one that made me want to be a writer, or so I’m always saying—was Great Expectations. I’m sure I was fifteen, both when I first read it and when I first reread it. I know this was before I began to attend the academy, because I got the book from the First Sister town library—twice. I won’t forget the day I showed up at the library to take that book out a second time; I’d never wanted to reread an entire novel before.
Miss Frost gave me a penetrating look. At the time, I doubt I was as tall as her shoulders. “Miss Frost was once what they call ‘statuesque,’” my aunt had told me, as if even Miss Frost’s height and shape existed only in the past. (She was forever statuesque to me.)
Miss Frost was a woman with an erect posture and broad shoulders, though it was chiefly her small but pretty breasts that got my attention. In seeming contrast to her mannish size and obvious physical strength, Miss Frost’s breasts had a newly developed appearance—the improbable but budding look of a young girl’s. I couldn’t understand how it was possible for an older woman to have achieved this look, but surely her breasts had seized the imagination of every teenage boy who’d encountered her, or so I believed when I met her—when was it?—in 1955. Furthermore, you must understand that Miss Frost never dressed suggestively, at least not in the imposed silence of the forlorn First Sister Public Library; day or night, no matter the hour, there was scarcely anyone there.
I had overheard my imperious aunt say (to my mother): “Miss Frost is past an age where training bras suffice.” At thirteen, I’d taken this to mean that—in my judgmental aunt’s opinion—Miss Frost’s bras were all wrong for her breasts, or vice versa. I thought not! And the entire time I was internally agonizing over my and my aunt’s different fixations with Miss Frost’s breasts, the daunting librarian went on giving me the aforementioned penetrating look.
I’d met her at thirteen; at this intimidating moment, I was fifteen, but given the invasiveness of Miss Frost’s long, lingering stare, it felt like a two-year penetrating look to me. Finally she said, in regard to my wanting to read Great Expectations again, “You’ve already read this one, William.”
“Yes, I loved it,” I told her—this in lieu of blurting out, as I almost did, that I loved her. She was austerely formal—the first person to unfailingly address me as William. I was always called Bill, or Billy, by my family and friends.
I wanted to see Miss Frost wearing only her bra, which (in my interfering aunt’s view) offered insufficient restraint. Yet, in lieu of blurting out such an indiscretion as that, I said: “I want to reread Great Expectations.” (Not a word about my premonition that Miss Frost had made an impression on me that would be no less devastating than the one that Estella makes on poor Pip.)
So soon?” Miss Frost asked. “You read Great Expectations only a month ago!”
“I can’t wait to reread it,” I said.
“There are a lot of books by Charles Dickens,” Miss Frost told me. “You should try a different one, William.”
“Oh, I will,” I assured her, “but first I want to reread this one.”
Miss Frost’s second reference to me as William had given me an instant erection—though, at fifteen, I had a small penis and a laughably disappointing hard-on. (Suffice it to say, Miss Frost was in no danger of noticing that I had an erection.)
My all-knowing aunt had told my mother I was underdeveloped for my age. Naturally, my aunt had meant “underdeveloped” in other (or in all) ways; to my knowledge, she’d not seen my penis since I’d been an infant—if then. I’m sure I’ll have more to say about the penis word. For now, it’s enough that you know I have extreme difficulty pronouncing “penis,” which in my tortured utterance emerges—when I can manage to give voice to it at all—as “penith.” This rhymes with “zenith,” if you’re wondering. (I go to great lengths to avoid the plural.)
In any case, Miss Frost knew nothing of my sexual anguish while I was attempting to check out Great Expectations a second time. In fact, Miss Frost gave me the impression that, with so many books in the library, it was an immoral waste of time to reread any of them.
“What’s so special about Great Expectations?” she asked me.
She was the first person I told that I wanted to be a writer “because of” Great Expectations, but it was really because of her.
“You want to be a writer!” Miss Frost exclaimed; she didn’t sound happy about it. (Years later, I would wonder if Miss Frost might have expressed indignation at the sodomizer word had I suggested that as a profession.)
“Yes, a writer—I think so,” I said to her.
“You can’t possibly know that you’re going to be a writer!” Miss Frost said. “It’s not a career choice.”
She was certainly right about that, but I didn’t know it at the time. And I wasn’t pleading with her only so she would let me reread Great Expectations; my pleas were especially ardent, in part, because the more exasperated Miss Frost became with me, the more I appreciated the sudden intake of her breath—not to mention the resultant rise and fall of her surprisingly girlish breasts.