The preambulatory pages to this book include a list of other works by John Irving. It lists 17. Along with this novel and one published since that makes 19 publications (14 of these are novels). I’ve now read 8 of his novels and I have two more on my shelf to read in the future. It’s hard to say why I like Irving’s work so much. I first read A Prayer for Owen Meany (still my favorite) in high school at the recommendation of my favorite English teacher. I stormed through several of his other books through high school and college and since then, this has been my first trip down Irving lane. My library owns a book-club-set of this title and after unsuccessfully petitioning for it six months ago, I got it on the list for this go around. I’m so looking forward to what the club has to say about my favorite writer.
Cover Image via Goodreads
In One Person by John Irving
Summary from Goodreads:
A New York Times bestselling novel of desire, secrecy, and sexual identity, In One Person is a story of unfulfilled love—tormented, funny, and affecting—and an impassioned embrace of our sexual differences. Billy, the bisexual narrator and main character of In One Person, tells the tragicomic story (lasting more than half a century) of his life as a “sexual suspect,” a phrase first used by John Irving in 1978 in his landmark novel of “terminal cases,” The World According to Garp.
In One Person is a poignant tribute to Billy’s friends and lovers—a theatrical cast of characters who defy category and convention. Not least, In One Person is an intimate and unforgettable portrait of the solitariness of a bisexual man who is dedicated to making himself “worthwhile.”
Irving might not have been the best writer to fall in love with at age 15. His books are rather ‘raunchy’ in their own way. Most involve a young sexual experience that sticks with the character for much of his life and many of them don’t shy away from intimate details. There’s usually at least one suicide as well. This novel hit on almost all of the ‘John Irving Tropes’ I’ve come to love. I believe the only one missing was a bear. It had wrestling, a main character with absent/dead parents, living in Europe, boarding schools, a writer for a main character, and theater. I hope this doesn’t sound demeaning because I love that Irving is still finding new and unique ways to use all of these elements. Billy’s bisexuality was different from his previous novels. Irving is no stranger to saying unpopular things or going after subjects that can be sensitive. The Cider House Rules focused on abortion. This novel focuses on gay rights. I commend Irving for saying what might be unpopular and couching it in great fiction.
Irving’s characters are memorable and I love his secondary characters most. We have Emily, the daughter of a friend, who won’t stop screaming when she sees a man. Delacourt, who won’t drink water for fear of gaining weight before wrestling weigh-in and who perpetually rinses and spits into paper cups. These quirky side characters make an Irving novel fun. His main characters, chiefly Billy, Elaine, and Kitteridge, don’t have as many odd quirks, but they’re very deep and well thought out, especially Kitteridge.
I’d say Kitteridge is my favorite character, but I was unhappy with how his character resolved at the end. (I won’t spoil it here, but I’ll say it wasn’t what I was hoping for.) I could tell that as a child, he was unhappy with or hiding something. The way he spoke about his mother was very revealing. His relationship with Elaine I thought was more so. I always smile when I go to a high-school stage production and it seems like some of the guys were convinced to fill in roles by their girlfriends and would be much happier on the football field or the wrestling mat. I kept looking for that in Kitteridge, but he really wanted to be there and I would love to know more about what he did with that. I felt he convinced his friends to surround him to make him feel more at home, but he liked pretending to be someone else and he enjoyed looking for motivation and figuring out delivery. He made me think from the beginning and I liked that about him.
I related to young Elaine but I felt she was very different after she returned from Europe. She seemed to want and reject attention from boys, her parents, even Billy. I felt that way when I was her age. I wanted to be seen, but only as much as I was comfortable with. I was on stage, but never a leading role. I flirted, but I backed away when anything turned serious. I liked Elaine initially because of this similarity, but in the end, I wasn’t a big fan of her character. I felt she ended up very cold.
Image via the author’s website
The time at Favorite River was my favorite. I like the boarding school setting for almost any book (A Separate Peace, Harry Potter) so I loved seeing it in this book. The characters in Billy’s life were consistent while he was at school. He knew them better than I think he knew his friends and lovers later in life. The people he met at school were the ones he remembered the rest of his life. I thought it was very telling that though he didn’t wrestle, he knew Coach Hoyt really well and visited him into old age. That’s the kind of strong relationship that I think makes a good book.
One of the men from my book club sent me his thoughts before I finished the book and the only one I really remember is that he said the ending felt rushed. I thought about this as I read through the end of the book and I can see that. There are elements of an Irving novel that will be important and stressed, but then go without mention for 100+ pages just to pop up again and be important. Kitteridge was one of these and I felt unsatisfied with how he came up again. The duck-under was another which I felt had a very lackluster conclusion. I would have been happier if it ended with the New York Athletic Club.
Billy never seems to feel he fits in anywhere. As a bisexual, he feels mistrusted by straight women and rejected by gay men. He never finds a community that lets him feel he belongs. Even Larry, his long time friend, criticizes his involvement in the AIDS epidemic and says he’s not invested because he didn’t loose someone close to him. A lot of Irving’s characters feel they don’t fit in anywhere and I think Billy was out to prove he did fit in. The ending, with Gee, didn’t seem fitting at first but as I read the final pages and thought about it after, it did fit for me. Gee needed someone like Billy to come into her own and I don’t think anyone else on campus could have done that for her. She’s lucky her parents were so supportive and that they’d send her somewhere where Billy could help her. He made himself an activist and a mentor when it was most needed and I think that was exactly his purpose in life.
Writer’s Takeaway: I’ve had to do some research in Irving and I found that a lot of the ‘Irving tropes’ I spoke of before are things that happened to him. He was a wrestler, competing into his 30s. He went to Exeter (a boarding school). His father wasn’t in his life. He was sexually abused at a young age by an older woman. As much as these elements make for good fiction and some of my favorite books, Irving is writing about what he knows and in a way, is writing about himself. (Many of his protagonists are writers or actors.) It’s not always bad to write what we’re familiar with. I’m sure there’s an interesting part of each of our lives that would make a fascinating story.
A very enjoyable, very Irving-y novel. Four out of Five stars.
Until next time, write on.
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