Tuesday, May 8, 2012

In One Person by John Irving

Book:  In One Person
Author:  John Irving
Publisher:  Simon & Schuster

When I debuted The Rainbow Reader, I had a very clear mission:  to review books by, for, or about lesbians.  And, over the past fourteen months, I’ve reviewed almost every imaginable form of short story and poem, speculative or general fiction, romance, mystery, adventure, or story of intrigue.  I’ve worked my way through anthologies and autobiographies, and I’ve tackled graphic prose and comic books.  I’ve even tried my hand, so to speak, at a few works of erotica. Through it all, I’ve stayed true to my theme—and to the reading proclivities of my audience.

However, today I’m going to do something a little different. 

Even as I write this, residents across North Carolina are voting on Amendment One—an ill advised and poorly worded attempt by the conservative right to constitutionally dehumanize and remove basic rights from LGBT residents who live within the state’s borders.  Sadly, though, its unintended consequences far outreach its unjust referendum on intolerance because it strips all families and children of access to basic health care, threatens parental rights, and throws essential protections such as domestic violence laws into legal pandemonium.

I am a resident of North Carolina, and I am reminded all too clearly that bias, discrimination, labels, and hatred affect not just me, but each of us within the wider lesbian, gay, bisexual, and transgender communities.  With that in mind, I feel it just and necessary to broaden my subject matter beyond the familiar and expected. 

I can think of no better place to start than with this exploration of In One Person by award-winning American novelist, John Irving.

This controversial book is a fierce overture that addresses a wide array of queer issues beyond lesbianism—including bisexuality, transsexualism, incest, and cross-dressing.  It is a story that unabashedly celebrates the fullest array of human sexuality, identity and desire, as well as the mutability of carnal longings.  It tells us that we are each a vital part of the human condition, regardless of our genders, orientations, or identities—and that these things matter a great deal because they are each a part of what makes us who we are.

In One Person tells the story of Billy Abbott, a rare first person narrator for Mr. Irving, who is growing up in the small Vermont town of First Sister. His early years are defined by his attendance at the local boarding school named Favorite River Academy, and through his participation with the local acting troupe called the First Sister Players.  In these local productions, Billy’s mother is the prompter, stepfather Richard Abbot becomes the long-desired leading man, Aunt Muriel and her bosom sometimes become the repressed leading lady, Miss Frost becomes the quintessential Ibsen woman, and Harry Marshall, Billy’s sawmill owning grandfather, regularly dons women’s clothing and performs female roles with stunning finesse and truthfulness.  Similarly, in the boarding school productions of Shakespeare’s works, male students and various townspeople play many of the female roles.

At the tender age of 13, Billy develops the first of many “crushes on the wrong people,” when he admits to yearnings for both his new stepfather and the town’s staunchly single, statuesque, and small-breasted librarian, Miss Frost.  Billy’s stepfather understands certain things about Billy, and hands him off to Miss Frost, who throughout his high school years, introduces him to classic works of literature that allow him to better understand his maturing, mutable, and fluid desires.

While at Favorite River, Billy and his best friend, Elaine Hadley, share a mutual and complex sexual fantasy with the school’s studly wrestling star, Kitteredge.  Both Billy and Elaine develop multifarious relationships with Kitteredge, who is a confounding mix of traits neither can understand nor define. 

Miss Frost, Billy learns, is a transsexual, and becomes the embodiment of Billy’s complex sexual desires––part man and part woman.  Soon after reading the James Baldwin classic, Giovanni’s Room, Billy enters into a sexual exploration with Miss Frost, but Billy’s mother quickly discovers the liaison.   While many men in the community surprisingly support Miss Frost, she loses her job as town librarian, and eventually must leave First Sister.  Billy refuses to accept that what the two shared was wrong, and his intolerance of intolerance begins to take shape.

Over the years to come, Billy becomes a writer, and his life is defined by the comings and goings of his male and female friends and lovers.  As the 1980s dawn, Billy witnesses firsthand the brutal and demoralizing affects of the AIDS epidemic, and learns that his was not the only life from First Sister that was or will be shaped by an indefinable sexual mutability—or that oft times, our differences can bring us closer together than any of our similarities ever could.

“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.” —from In One Person

In many ways, Billy is a product of his environment: born into the theatre, always watching, always transforming, and always trying to understand his motivations and hit his marks.  More than once, I was reminded of the Shakespearean passage:

"All the world's a stage,
And all the men and women merely players;
They have their exits and their entrances,
And one man in his time plays many parts..."
- from As You Like It, Act 2, Scene 7

Billy lives in a world where he (quite naturally) wears Elaine’s padded cup, pearl gray bra; where his grandfather is the elder stateswoman of the theatre; and where, no matter how much fondling and kissing he engages in—it wasn’t sex if there was no penetration. 

For the record, it was intercural!

Billy loves men and women equally, but he has never allowed himself to find a soul mate. He drifts from one live-in love to another.  This serial (perhaps) monogamy leads the reader to consider that possibly it isn’t just his sexual appetite that is fluid, but the very makeup of his life.  Much like an actor moves from one role to another, Billy moves from one love to another: always watching, always transforming, and always trying to understand his motivations and hit his marks in life.  Still, his life is littered with varying degrees of missed lines and loss—from his birth father and his mother, to his repressed aunt, to his friends who died of AIDS, to his grandparents, to Kitteredge, and eventually to Miss Frost.

Make no mistake; In One Person is about sex and courage—not so much the physical acts or manifestations, as the primal urges within each of us that drive us to be who we are. 

John Irving uses the term “sexual outsiders”—these are the everyday LGBT faces of our past, our present, and even our future.  As the folks of North Carolina vote today to potentially constitutionalize intolerance, we, across the wider spectrum of the LGBT community, must not give up hope. We must keep fighting for our rights, even though people hate us because of things they do not fully understand.

John Irving is arguably the most controversial, freethinking, audacious, and thought-provoking author writing today.  His voice speaks for generations of the disenfranchised—not just those of us in the LGBT community.  In One Person is smart, funny, raw, poignant, and heartbreaking. It is a book that will one day take its rightful place among the greatest books of our generation. 

It is impossible for me to assign a numerical rating to this book: all I can say is that John Irving’s In One Person must be read.

On May 8, 2012, the same day In One Person, John Irving's sweetly audacious celebration of human sexuality was released by publisher, Simon & Schuster, the voters of North Carolina voted for Amendment One by a 61% to 39% majority.  To put this into perspective, voter turnout for this primary election was only 34%––this means that a mere 20% of eligible voters had the power to change the state constitution to redundantly remove basic human rights from state citizens.   In 2012, North Carolina has approximately 6.3 million registered voters.  In most basic terms, 1.2 million people voted for Amendment One, and 832,000 voted against it––a difference of less than 400,000 votes in a state with 10 million residents.


  1. Thanks Salem for breaking out of your usual, albeit excellent, mold. I agree that especially now works that tackle the continuing struggle to authentically be who we are MUST be read, regardless whether he, she or it wrote them.

  2. Kudos and ovations on a transformative review and commentary on the times. Ms West, with each foray into new territory, you take your readers to a new level. I believe you are still upholding your primary purpose of writing about and for lesbians.
    Today's review was really no exception--just more expansive.
    May 8th will eventually slip from our memories, but combined with this review--John Irving's In One Person will remain in my memory as a powerful reminder of our human condition.

    I would personally ask if you'd consider printing a collection of each year's reviews for purchase.
    Thanks for another thoughtful contribution.


  3. These books describe about the nature and style of a woman. Like what they want, what are their needs etc. These are the book in which author spends time in writing it.