This book is totally gay, in the best possible way.
I have deep-seated issues with gay stereotypes in the media and the quiescent adoption and proliferation of these stereotypes by the gay community itself. This is why, even today, when the message does seem a little dated, In One Person by John Irving, his 13th novel, is such a charming, bracing and authentic breath of fresh air.
The novel tells the story of Billy from his childhood in 1950s small-town America, through the discovery of his sexual identity and into his old age. The novel’s central concept is an exploration of Billy’s many relationships: the men, women and trans* individuals that became his lovers and helped shape his sexuality and his understanding of it. The most important of these is his formative relationship with an older librarian, Miss Frost, which haunts and influences him throughout his life.
Irving traces Billy’s sexual awakening with sensitivity and sincerity, creating an intricate portrait of a flawed, confused but brave man dealing with his bisexuality in a conservative and changing world. Irving is adept at creating real, fully-formed characters that are living outside of what is considered the norm, and is an expert at mapping their internal worlds. And Billy is no exception: he is beautifully realised, authentic, captivating. And Irving does all this using his usual brand of tragi-comedy: his beautifully crafted sentences at once funny and brutal. And his usual themes and images are present too: wrestling, feminism, sexual deviancy; it is all here. But this is by no means his best work. It does not feel as complete, and is not as satisfying as, say, The World According to Garp or A Prayer for Owen Meany.
It is his structure which fails him. Irving, who in my opinion is a modern master, does seem in this instance to put message above plot: his structure is loose and uncontrolled, which at times leaves the narrative (and the pace) annoying and weak. And his very confronting message about sexual identity and tolerance, and the political implications carried by the message, do get stale. Irving has admitted in interviews that the idea for this novel has been germinating for many years and you can’t help but feel it would have had much more impact if it was published in the early 1990s, for example. Irving, and Billy’s, detour through the Aids epidemic, for example, while benefiting somewhat from hindsight, reads like a lecture you’ve heard countless times and only slows the novel down and leaves it with a bit of wet ending. It leaves you thinking: do we really need another novel about what it means to be gay?
Ultimately though the answer is yes. Billy and the people around him are so human, so utterly human, and so completely devoid of stereotype or caricature, that this novel does what so many like it strive but fail to do: defeat the stigmatisation of those considered sexually other, fight against prejudice and hatred without relying on harmful and self-fulfilling stereotyping. Irving populates his story with completely authentic people. You won’t find the flamboyant queen here or the narrow-minded small-town bully or the suicidal transsexual. Irving is much more nuanced than that. In the end, you cannot help being drawn into Irving’s worlds. He is so good, so engaging; he creates such vivid and original characters, that any weakness in the story simply falls away. And for all that his plot or approach wasn’t that original, his message is still important, is still relevant.
We still live in a world where the exploration of sexual identity, of homosexuality and bisexuality, needs to be interrogated, especially on the kind of mainstream platform Irving provides, especially with the kind of skill he offers. John Irving is a better writer than this book suggests, but this book is totally worth it.