“…you live your life at the time you live it – you don’t have much of an overview when what’s happening to you is still happening.” -Bill Abbott, from In One Person by John Irving
In One Person is my first John Irving book. Sure, I’d heard of him before: The World According to Garp, The Cider House Rules, A Prayer for Owen Meany… a close friend tried to introduce me to him back in the mid-nineties and sadly I didn’t listen. So I’m not sure why fifteen years later I chose his latest book to be my first taste of him, other than I was intrigued by the storyline of a bisexual man falling in love with a transsexual.
I had been warned that Irving was a tough read and I would agree with that statement. The narrator, Bill Abbott, is in his seventies when we meet him in the beginning of this novel. He recounts his life through his own sexual discovery starting as a young boy who has “crushes on the wrong people,” those being the town librarian who he learns his transsexual, his step-father, and a classmate who is a pompous wrestler. Like any aging storyteller, Bill often repeats himself or doesn’t quite transition well from story to story. I found this to be very frustrating in the beginning, but I soon discovered Irving really likes to take his time flushing out each story, making sure the reader is paying attention to the details he wants them to, even if he has to repeat them.
Irving uses community theater as the perfect metaphor for sexual identity, particularly Shakespeare where it was routine for men to play the female roles. Bill’s grandfather frequently cross-dressed on stage. Being a lumberman during the day, the town finds humor in it but we later learn that Grandpa also liked to dress up in his wife’s clothes after she was gone. Billy’s father is not in the picture, but we learn that he is gay and also enjoyed dressing in drag. It seems odd, and perhaps only in fiction would a young man be so exposed to alternative lifestyles when it comes to sexuality. I think I found myself almost envious of him for that reason. I knew no other gay people when I was growing up.
And so Bill grows up liking men and women equally, but having a stronger attraction toward the transgendered. A first person narrator is not always reliable, may not always tell the truth, and may certainly sway the story in the direction of his own beliefs and opinions. Bill’s sexual identity was accepted by his family more so than I thought it would be, and his classmates were accepting to. In fact, he never really faced prejudice until much later in life. There’s a lot of sexual philosophy in here that I found to just be beautiful, political even if you want to view it that way, but I never felt like Irving was on a soap box making us listen.
The book even brings us into the 80s with quite a bit about the AIDS epidemic as Billy sees many of his friends and lovers fading away and succumbing to it. It is all treated quite beautifully and sad. There’s a long roll call of deaths in the end of the book. It became a bit unnerving for me, but I accepted it’s much like real life as we get older. It seems every weekend when I speak to my mother by phone she tells me of someone who has passed away.
By the time I closed the book, I was actually missing the characters as if they were best friends who’d moved away forever. I felt empty. And yet I also felt satisfied for having just read such an enormously fulfilling book. For someone who struggled with his own sexual identity quite a bit at a young age, and feared he’d contracted AIDS just by experimenting with a teenage friend, this book made me reflect on the eccentric and personal details of my own life. I discovered parts maybe I’d missed before or refused to look at.
The book ends with these words: “…don’t put a label on me – don’t make me a category before you get to know me.” I’m certainly guilty of that when it comes to things I don’t know or don’t accept. And I think that’s a problem with many of us when it comes to sex, and to think it only took a John Irving book for me to think differently. This is a book I will be thinking about for a long time.