Staff Pick – In One Person by John Irving

In One Person (M) by John Irving has many of the elements you would expect to find in an John Irving novel – a New England setting, his character is a writer, fathers are absent, there are wrestlers, and yes, there are even bears, of a sort.

This is a deeply compassionate novel that celebrates individuality and social justice. There is a rich cast of characters each of whom has their own quirkiness and secrets, who draw you into their complicated and diverse lives, turning this coming of age story into a fast-paced page turner. And as always, Irving’s humour and wordplay makes reading his novels a genuine pleasure.

Billy Abbott used to feel that his mother loved him, but as he grew up he began to worry that he had inherited something distinctly unlovable from his absent father. Growing up in New England in the 1960’s, his chief concern appeared to be that he develops crushes on the wrong people, including his best and lifelong friend Elaine, the statuesque town librarian Miss Frost, his stepfather Richard and Kitttredge, the school wrestling champion and bully. He attends a private school where amateur dramatics flourish, where wrestling is the sport of champions and where bullies assign names of Shakespearean characters to their victims.

Billy lives in a world in which sexuality and gender is fluid. His bisexuality separates him from both the straight and gay communities, although he does appear to have an affinity with the transgender community. He remains unto himself, not closely aligned with any of these communities, a fact that is pointed out to him with some bitterness by a friend at the height of the AIDS epidemic. Billy comes of age in the 1960’s and 1970’s traveling from New England to Europe to New York to California, then finally back to New England. Throughout the novel the shadow of AIDS is ever present and finally the story takes us to the 1980’s and does not spare the heartbreak.

As I was reading In One Person, my mind would often to return to Armistead Maupin’s Tales of the City. (M“Though the lovelorn tenants of a San Francisco apartment house, Maupin takes the reader into a brave new world of laundromat lotharios, cutthroat debutantes, and Jockey shorts dance contests. Hurdling barriers both social and sexual, this cunningly observed comedy – and the five novels which succeed it – offer an unprecedented portrait of the agonies and absurdities of urban life in the last quarter of the 20th century.” back cover

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