When I read about this quasi-autobiographical tale from this major novelist, I didn’t hesitate to get my (kindle) copy.
In One Person
John Irving’s In One Person (448 pages, Simon and Schuster, $28) tells the tale of young Bill (or Billy) Abbot, who is a barely prepubescent boy when the novel opens in the 1940s. Billy is smitten with the local librarian, Miss Frost. In her thirties and precisely elegant, she charms Billy with her demeanor and her small breasts, about which he fantasizes in private and even in early sexual play with his almost-girlfriend Elaine.
It does not take long for the reader to understand that Miss Frost is a transsexual, either a transvestite or a full male-to-female transsexual. Billy does not see that the very features he describes are features that betray the sex-change: large hands, deep voice, strapping back, and so on. But the sexual obsession—or “crush”—that Billy forms turns out to shape him irrevocably.
Almost as if to prove this before explaining Billy’s awakening, Irving offers scenes from Billy’s later life in which he is dating a transsexual or finding mannish women attractive. And since this first attraction is to a woman who is also a man, Irving uses it to explain his character’s bisexuality.
While attracted to Miss Frost, Billy also almost dates his friend Elaine, has an abiding crush on a fellow student actor and wrestler called Kittredge, and finds himself the heart-throb to his high school classmate called Tom.
The first two-thirds of the novel, when Irving describes the high school experiences of these characters, as they come to terms with budding sexuality and act in high school drama productions, is wonderful. The drama of discovering the full identity of Miss Frost reads almost like a mystery, and the effect of Billy’s relation with the librarian is truly powerful.
Also compelling is the tale of Billy summer in Europe with Tom. The relationship between these two boys fails, and the failure is painful to watch; but it is nonetheless well-rendered. These boys torment each other in ways that are as frustrating as they are inevitable.
After that, though, the novel feels to me a bit rushed. It does deal with the AIDS crisis, and it handles beautifully the confusion of the early years of the eighties, when gay men were first learning about the illness as their friends died in profusion. But by that point, many readers, like me, may have lost sympathy with Billy, who seems to feel that bisexuality is a curse, when it is really his inability to love any of the many people who took care of him as he used them for sexual adventure. It is not Billy that is irritating so much as all those characters who emerged from sexual liberation to feel that they had been cheated.
The novel ends compellingly, though, and the tale of Billy Abbot is one that everyone interested in the later years of the twentieth century can read with interest. Was it really like that? we may ask ourselves. Yes, I think it really was.