Review | In One Person, John Irving

“My dear boy,” a character tells Billy, the narrator of John Irving’s In One Person“My dear boy, please don’t put a label on me — don’t make me a category before you get to know me!” If only such a statement were no longer relevant today; if only such sentiment were limited to the 70s and 80s, when Billy was growing up. Unfortunately, homosexuality is still a big issue; unfortunately, there are those who still regard it as unnatural, even immoral. Society has taken big steps since the one Billy refers to when he says “I might take seriously the idea of service to my country when my country begins to demonstrate that it gives a shit about me!” Homosexuality is no longer considered a psychiatric ailment, for example, nor is it a criminal act. Still, gay marriage remains a hot button topic in many US states, and publicly funded Catholic schools in Ontario continue to fight the establishment of Gay Straight Alliances. I wish I could say that Billy’s story in In One Person shocked and appalled me, yet all I could think of is how relevant it still is today.

An interesting twist in Irving’s book is that Billy isn’t just gay, he’s bisexual. I never really thought about how that might be more difficult than being homosexual, so Billy’s perspective made me think. Billy writes that he faces discrimination from gay men, who believe he is hiding his attraction only to men behind the veneer of also being attracted to women. So he feels he doesn’t completely fit in either with the gay community or with the straight one. It’s an especially narrow form of isolation.

In One Person begins with Billy’s childhood. I love how his stepfather introduces him to the library, and basically encourages him to find himself there. As a booklover, I especially love this line about reading, spoken by the librarian Miss Frost:

Savor, don’t gorge. And when you love a book, commit one glorious sentence of it — perhaps your favorite sentence — to memory. That way you won’t forget the language of the story that moved you to tears.

I wish I’d done that more often.

I love that Billy’s stepfather takes him to the library to help him find the answers about why he has “crushes on the wrong people.” I especially love that while the well-meaning stepfather tells Billy that “there are no ‘wrong’ people to have crushes on,” Miss Frost replies, “are you kidding? … On the contrary, William, there is some notable literature on the subject of crushes on the wrong people.” She was referring to Wuthering Heights and Jane Eyre, rather than to the homosexual crushes Billy meant, yet it does bring up an interesting point — the problem of restricting people’s behaviour goes far beyond the gay community. At various points in history, race, class and all sorts of other issues were raised as barriers to people’s happiness. The shame Billy feels about his “crushes on the wrong people” is not just a homosexual problem; it’s a human one, and I love that a library, of all places, provides venue for such insight.

In One Person is a tribute as well to other forms of art as venues for freedom of expression. Along with Billy’s finding comfort and understanding with Miss Frost in the library, Irving also gives us community theatre. As an Agatha Christie fan, I personally would have liked to see on stage the Christie plays Irving derides, but fine, Ibsen and Chekhov may well provide more dramatic value for the story. I love how theatre gives Billy’s grandfather the freedom to dress and act as a woman — he may have to hide his sexuality in real life, but on stage, he’s a star when he dons women’s clothing. Billy does notice how some in the audience, who are friends of his grandfather, cannot hide their looks of disgust at the cross dressing, and that unfortunately keeps this story realistic. The grandfather is a compelling, delightful character, and the image of an elderly man totally in his element onstage in women’s clothing is rather touching.

The novel is especially poignant because it’s partly set in the 80s, right at the height of the explosion of AIDS into mainstream consciousness. This is long before Jonathan Larson raised a glass “To people living with, living with, living with / Not dying from disease,” when AIDS was much scarier and more mysterious than it is now, when having it was a death sentence. And because people didn’t really understand how HIV was transmitted, there was a moralistic element to the fear as well — AIDS was thought of as a disease limited to homosexuals. In Irving’s novel, Billy reflects that it’s no longer no big deal to have a nosebleed during a wrestling match. It’s sad, yet understandable, to see the men in the wrestling club with him viewing Billy’s blood with fear yet at the same time be too polite (too thoughtful, maybe?) to actually come right out and admit it.

AIDS is a horrible illness, with tragic consequences not just to the patient, but to the patient’s loved ones. At one point, a character says that you shouldn’t leave a loved one alone in a room with the deceased, especially when the aforementioned loved one is a widowed mother with no other children. The reason behind that is absolutely, horrifyingly, tragic. That scene almost made me cry.

In One Person does get to be too much like a manifesto at times — I felt like we get the point, move on with the story — and characters put it to forward the novel’s argument. Still, overall, it’s a powerful book, and beautifully written. And the arguments it makes still most definitely need to be heard.

+

Thank you to Random House Canada for an ARC of this book in exchange for an honest review.

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