In One Person (2012) – John Irving

Title: In One Person
Author: John Irving
Date published: 2012
Publisher: Random House
Star rating: ⭐⭐⭐⭐⭐

If you are familiar with John Irving’s novels (this is his 13th), you would be aware of his style of odd humor, blunt characters, his penchant for liberal politics and the undeniable affection he seems to have for his many, many characters. They are all more than just individual characters on a page. They are generations, and genes and family secrets and stories told over and over again. Just as families and friends repeat themselves over the years, Irving’s characters are no different. They hold on to what they consider important, even if the reader questions the repetition it matters not to Irving for he is the master of the story. Even if the story appears to have no clear ending, there probably is an ending, but it might have been in the middle.

In One Person (2012) is the story of William ‘Billy’ Dean, who becomes Billy Abbott quite early on in this story. His mother marries Richard Abbott, the drama teacher at his school Favorite River Academy, and his father (whom he never meets) is known only as the ‘code boy’, William Francis Dean who was apparently a cryptographer in the Second World War. His grandfather, Harry, and his Uncle Bob tell him stories about his father, and it is these stories that seem to remain imprinted on the young Billy. He becomes known in the little town of First Sister, Vermont, as ‘the code boy’s son’, and it is the very act of labeling that plagues Billy’s life and becomes the reason for this tale of identity and love.

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From the minute Billy falls in love with the librarian at his local library he realizes not only a few things about himself, but also about the many people in his life, including the dear old librarian, Miss Frost. Whilst his grandfather dresses up in women’s clothing and Miss Frost identifies as a ‘transsexual’, Billy realizes that he is attracted to both men and women. He struggles to tell his family, and eventually begins by telling his best friend Elaine, whose mother becomes his speech therapist; Billy cannot say the word ‘penis’, and rather says ‘penith’.

At school he dabbles in a bit of amateur acting in a number of Shakespeare’s plays, which it turns out is the perfect backdrop to his life as a person dabbling with both sex and identity. Richard Abbott, the drama teacher and the man who eventually marries Billy’s mother, understands the ‘trappings’ of gender and so will forever cast Billy’s grandpa Harry as a woman. “What I really think Bill,…  is that gender mattered a whole lot less to Shakespeare than it seems to matter to us”, Richard tells Billy one day when he angrily refers to his grandfather as a “ dyke”. A word he is used to hearing from a boy at school called Kittredge (surname only), whose other favorite words include “homo”, “fag” and “queer”. Kittredge, a member of the school wrestling team, also becomes an integral part of Billy’s life. As the story flashes forward and he grows up and moves away from First Sister to live in New York with Elaine, the 1980’s comes along with the terror of the AIDS epidemic dragging behind it and altering the future of thousands upon thousands of people, and suddenly the notion of being sexually liberated becomes tainted.

As Billy’s life takes leaps and bounds in terms of career and personal acceptance, it is the cast of characters that surround him that make this book such a beautifully unconventional story. It is through them that we see Billy as Billy, and not as anything or anyone other than Billy. John Irving’s sensitive use of the pronoun, the discussions pertaining to his beloved wrestling and the endearing charm with which he discusses the most controversial of subjects all help create a tapestry of tragedy like only John Irving can.

This novel is a story about the beginnings of the LGBTQ movement, and a story about wrestling. This novel is a study of the severe loss Billy experienced over a lifetime, and also a story about the shame and pain of trying to be oneself. It is also the story of intolerance and an ode to all the libraries in all the small towns that helped people like Billy find books on “having crushes on the wrong people”.

I don’t quite know how the story ends, or even whether it should end, but I do know that a story like this doesn’t need an ending. All we need know is that it began…

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