John Irving’s thirteenth novel ‘In One Person’ is nothing short of a masterpiece, a sophisticated work of literary genius. But that may not stop you from throwing it across the room more than a few times while reading it. The narrator and main character Billy Abbott may remind you of an annoying friend with the short attention span, trying to tell you a story about someone he met one day and thirty minutes later you have learned a few things about six other characters except the one that Billy originally intended to describe.
But stick with Billy because now he’s piqued your curiosity about these six characters. There will be a few others on this journey and each one will matter to the story. Each one will touch your heart and blow your mind in ways you never expected. Billy will start his story in small town First Sister, Vermont, with his family and his school, the Favorite River Academy, where he is a member of the school’s theater ensemble. He will then take you through a couple of summers in Europe all the way to a shattering climax in New York.
One can relate to Billy’s story on so many levels, perhaps even see oneself as Billy. He is an awkward teenager with a slight speech impediment. He is desperately trying to make sense of his budding sexuality, what he calls “inappropriate crushes”. He is searching for a mentor to guide him but is surrounded by eccentrics with their own secrets to handle. He loves Elaine Hadley, his best friend and fellow actor at Favorite River Academy, and they are both at once intrigued and intimidated by the school bully and wrestling champ Jacques Kittredge. Looming above all this is Miss Frost, the town librarian, an enigmatic figure who is the focus of Billy’s obsession and the source of his most important life lessons.
Playwrights Shakespeare and Ibsen will factor in heavily but you don’t have to be a drama queen to appreciate the context. Billy’s life is a Shakespearean comedy that leads to devastating consequences of the kind suffered by Ibsen’s characters. Oh, and Billy loves to talk about breasts, and sex, and his attraction to girls and boys. Billy’s story telling doesn’t have room for apologies or explanations about his bisexuality. He has known it since the age of thirteen; he acts on it, and will tell you all the tragicomic details.
And before you can interrupt to say, “But Billy, you started to tell me about Miss Frost. What happens to her?” you realize that the journey is the story, that what happens is immaterial to how it happens, and that Billy’s story is meritless without dwelling on the relationships and how those relationships shape Billy’s character. This, in essence, has been the magic of John Irving’s writing for the past three decades and ‘In One Person’ is simply the latest dazzling example.
For LGBT readers, and bisexuals specifically, this novel is a particular triumph because our lives are complicated, non-linear stories about forces bigger than our sexuality or desires. Our stories are about a larger universe that we occupy, one that is constantly trying to deny our existence or suppress us. One in which we are searching for a sense of belonging, wishing for a Miss Frost to illuminate a path to our sexual and spiritual liberation, and hoping that one day we, like Billy, will be able to forgive our own frailty. And from that forgiveness will arise a divine sense of charity and responsibility to teach future generations of LGBT individuals. ‘In One Person’ is our story.
‘In One Person’ won the 2013 Lambda Literary Award for Bisexual Literature (Fiction) and Irving was aptly honored with the Bridge Builder Award for “a distinguished ally to the lesbian, gay, bisexual, and transgender community whose work promotes meaningful understanding about the lives of LGBT people.”