“My dear boy, please don’t put a label on me–don’t make me a category before you get to know me!”
Behold the cover of Irving’s latest novel (above). It seems to depict a man putting on (or, is he taking off?) a woman’s brassiere, and I believe it represents the central character of In One Person: Billy Abbott. He wrestles throughout the novel with his identity, with his sexuality, with the crazy mixed up lives of the adults around him not many of which I can uphold as having any sort of moral compass whatsoever. If I sound a bit scornful, a bit critical, forgive me.
At first, I felt a great tenderness for Billy. Within the very first paragraph I read these sentences, “We are formed by what we desire. In less than a minute of excited, secretive longing, I desired to become a writer and to have sex with Miss Frost-not necessarily in that order.” We are formed by what we desire, most certainly, especially when we are in our teen years. The only ‘problem’? Miss Frost was once Big Al.
Yet cross dressing, female impersonation, trans-gender issues are familiar to this family. Billy’s grandfather, a logger by trade, loved to dress as a woman on the stage of First Sister’s town theater. You could see that attribute as merely playing a part, or you could see it as his inner desires on display in public. Either way, they present a duplicitous role model for Billy.
As a child, I was frightened by what I saw in those faces in the audience from my unseen, backstage position. I never forgot some of their expressions. When I was seventeen, and I told my grandfather about my crushes on boys and men, and my contradictory attraction to a made-up veresion of Martha Hadley as a training-bra model, I was still frightened by what I’d seen in those faces in the audience at the First Sister Players.I told Grandpa Harry about watching some of our fellow townspeople, who were caught in the act of watching him. “They didn’t care that it was make-believe,” I told him. “They just knew they didn’t like it. They hated you…They hated you pretending to be a woman.”
“You know what I say, Bill?” Grandpa Harry asked me. “I say, you can make-believe what you want.” There were tears in my eyes then, because I was afraid for myself–not unlike the way, as a child, I had been afraid backstage for Grandpa Harry.
He loves Elaine. He loves Miss Foster. He loves Tom Atkins and Jacques Kitteridge. There seems no end of people with whom Billy will be attracted to. He sleeps with Elaine’s bra under his pillow, which quite distresses his mother. But, when Elaine becomes pregnant, his mother slaps him and runs away crying because Billy wasn’t the one who impregnated her. Such an ironic twist, so different from the mother I know who would suffer shame at an unexpected pregnancy should her son be the father.
We follow Billy through the sixties. The seventies. The eighties. “Some decades slip by, others drag on; what made the eighties last forever was that my friends and lovers kept dying–into the nineties, and beyond. By ’95-in New York alone-more Americans had died of AIDS than were killed in Vietnam.” It is a heartbreaking story, a heartbreaking situation for those who live a bisexual life and those who love them.
I’m so appreciative of Simon and Schuster sending me this novel, for I long to know Irving’s work better. And it is receiving marvelous press as you can see below:
“Piquantly charming, crisply funny…Ever the fearless writer of conscience calling on readers to be open-minded, Irving performs a sweetly audacious, at times elegiac, celebration of human sexuality.” ~ Booklist, starred review
“Truly heart-wrenching. Irving cares deeply, and the novel is not just Bill’s story but a human tale. This wonderful blend of thought-provoking, well-constructed, and meaningful writing is what one has come to expect of Irving, and it also makes for an enjoyable page-turner.” ~ Library Journal, starred review
“Cause for excitement: John Irving’s In One Person, his most daringly political, sexually transgressive, and moving novel in well over a decade, follows the life of charming Billy, an ambitious, bisexual writer as he pursues his desires…Theatrical, generous, sad.” ~Vanity Fair
‘[In One Person] is a staggeringly ambitious work, and its success reaffirms Irving’s place among our greatest working novelists.” ~ Bookpage
“A brave and hugely affecting depiction of how in one life (sexual and otherwise) we contain multitudes.” ~ Elle
Simon and Schuster are willing to send a copy of this novel to one recipient (U.S./Canada). Simply leave a comment below stating that you would like to be considered for the give-away, and I will draw a name one week from today which is Friday, June 15.
The winner for In One Person is Andi of Estella’s Revenge. Congratulations, Andi!