John Irving is saying something important about sex, gender and identity in his latest novel. If only he didn't say it so many times, in so many places, saturating almost every scene with so much message that the beautiful colors in which he writes struggle to shine through.
"In One Person" is a novel celebrating the needs and longings that all people share, and lamenting the way those same needs can make some people feel painfully "different."
In Irving's story – one that the real world is catching up to – the argument is made that being different should not have to be painful.
The story opens in the author's familiar New England universe, a solidly American place that, in the mid-20th century, is on the cusp of great change, with a World War not long ended, and an unpopular Asian war just beginning. Our narrator, Billy Abbott, is on the cusp of his own awakening. As the only child of a troubled woman, with a missing father and a home full of secrets, he is wrestling with disturbing things he is finding out about himself.
At the top of the list: He keeps getting crushes on the wrong people.
And that can be a problem in a small post-war town where everyone knows everybody else's business – at least everyone who has been around long enough. (For the readers, and for young Billy, it will take a while to catch up on that history.)
Easier for all of us is sliding, once again, into Irving's comfortable culture of prep schools and wrestling, dark winters and life spent in the gray areas of a society that wants to see things in black and white (or, in this case, in "boy and girl").
But young Billy Abbott doesn't just love the wrong people, he loves too many different kinds of people. A budding bisexual, his best friend is a teenage girl; his great love is Miss Frost, a pretty but strapping lady librarian with oddly large hands; his great crush is the (male) teacher who marries his mother.
They and the rest of the adults in the isolated town of First Sister, Vt., are brought together by the community theater, where, all differences aside, they perform Ibsen and other classics under the tyrannical direction of Nils Borkman, a Norwegian who owns a lumber mill with Bill's grandfather.
Irving has great fun with these episodes, starting with Billy's grandfather, Harry, the town's most famous "leading lady," an onstage cross-dresser with a tolerant if not delighted wife. And he uses events there, in miniature, to make all his world a stage.
With the scene thus set, Billy heads to high school at Favorite River Academy, promptly getting yet another crush on the "strikingly beautiful" but emotional abusive captain of the wrestling team. "Was I the only boy at the all-boys' school who found that the wrestling matches gave me a homoerotic charge? I doubt it, but boys like me kept their heads down," Billy narrates.
And then, with painful, technical detail, we follow bisexual Billy from his days of masturbating to lingerie ads to his sexual experimentation and barely legal sexual initiation with Miss Frost, then on through his adult life of serial near-monogamy with lovers of all sorts.
The problem – the repeated problem, the seemingly unsolvable problem – is that no one takes Billy seriously as a lover. Gay men see him as keeping one foot in the closet, women fear he will leave them for a man or maybe another woman, and transsexuals think he wants them to be one or the other, despite his declarations of being totally enamored with them "just the way you are!"
Irving has made Billy a writer, places him in Europe for a time and then makes him bicoastal as well as bisexual. And yet, he never fleshes out his life very far from his many sexual partners – Billy's search for love, romance, or at least good sex preoccupies all his moves.
So it is puzzling how unsexy his liaisons are on the page. Perhaps Irving keeps the lovemaking on the clinical side to be clear that this is a story about gender, not nookie.
But for Billy and his cadre of childhood friends and classmates, the consequences of history start to pile on. Vietnam takes an exceptionally high toll on Irving's young scholars and athletes, only to be exceeded by the AIDS epidemic. In personalizing that grim toll, Irving provides a reminder that, today, when gay marriage has replaced gays in the military as the hot homosexual topic du jour, it was not that long ago that the "gay plague" was ravaging an entire culture, when an HIV diagnosis meant near certain death.
We know from the start that Billy survives, but he is not untouched. Irving dispatches many of the friends and lovers we've met along the way. But, as Billy has no wife and kids to keep him company as he ages, the author does bless him with extremely long-lived "adults"– the grown-ups from his childhood who last well into their 90s, plenty long enough to – finally – explain his life to him.
"In One Person" has intriguing characters and a compelling premise, and it is not hard to see how important it is to its author. But still, in the end, the reader is left feeling as though something is missing. There is much talk about genitalia and breasts and people who have or do not possess them in various combinations, but once we get away from the wretched deathbeds of those who are gone far too young – chapters written with passion, sadness and anger – it is hard to find the heart.
Melinda Miller is The News' ?features editor.
In One Person
By John Irving
Simon & Schuster
425 pages, $28