This is a big book – physically big and thematically big. At 425 pages long, it’s a book that became quite difficult to read when lying in bed, but it kept me captivated enough to strengthen my hands and keep reading.
I haven’t read a John Irving novel for a long time, having enjoyed The World According to Garp, Cider House Rules and A Prayer for Owen Meany I began to get confused by his books after a while, with their circuses, bears, wrestlers and complicated relationships. (John Irving competed as a wrester for 27 years and then coached the sport. I think wrestling has featured in every book he has written.) However, In One Person introduces us to wrestling again, but no bears or circuses – rather compelling, likeable, complicated main character who kept me intrigued throughout the book.
Billy, the protagonist, narrates his life story to us, scanning the years from a child to an elderly man. It is a poignant, sad story of a bisexual man who is determined to stay true to his real sexual identity, despite the prejudices and difficulties he encounters along the way. Irving tells Billy’s story in the quirky, wryly humorous way that only Irving can, inventing characters that dwell on the fringes of society because of their oddities. He treats his characters with such kindness, even the bullies, that they are all compelling and delightful.
Some of the sexual descriptions are fairly graphic (I certainly learned things I didn’t know), but they are not written for their shock value, but as events that make up part of Billy’s life and further our understanding of him. As a middle-aged man living in America in the 80s, Billy encounters AIDS for the first time, the devastating effects it has on some of his friends and lovers, and the prejudicial attitude of society towards this ‘gay’ disease.
Despite the novel’s humour and sometime seeming lightness, this is one of the most serious books Irving has produced, subject-wise. He deals with adolescent desire, forbidden love, tragic loss. He writes about identity, peculiarities, taboos and polarisations. And he addresses all of these themes in a gripping story that is well written and very readable.
If you are a fan of John Irving, you shouldn’t miss reading In One Person. If you aren’t, or don’t know his writing, I would recommend this as a good place to start.