Friday, February 22, 2013

In One Person by John Irving


So, I started reading books by John Irving way back when I was in college and a friend of mine recommended that I read The World According to Garp (a book that I should probably re-read along with The Cider House Rules and a Prayer for Owen Meany). I should probably send a very heartfelt thank you because Irving has become one of my most treasured authors of all time, and his place in my heart has grown since I learned that he's from New Hampshire.

In One Person is told from the viewpoint of Billy, who always seems to have a crush on the "wrong person," including gender bending types that one wouldn't necessarily expect a young man growing up in the 50's to confidently express a desire for (but whom Billy does). It focuses on his years as a faculty brat at a prep school in rural Vermont and then the years shortly after - I think that it's accurate to say that most Irving's attention is paid to Billy's adolescence and college years. There are big questions about what constitutes sexuality, sexual and gender identity, family and personhood. Billy is born into a family where his father is mysteriously absent - in fact, the ghost of his existence is what we end up being most familiar with; where his mother is seemingly disgusted by him (maybe because he reminds her of his absent biological father?); a kind stepfather that is actually a father; an aunt who hates anyone that doesn't fit into her (conservative) view of life; a cross dressing grandfather and a drunk uncle. The tale spans his whole life - with heavy focus on the preop school years, when he seems to have a crush on everyone from his friend Elaine, to a male wrestler, to the librarian and even his stepfather.

What I think that this book set out to do is to teach people about bisexuality and gay culture. I think it also attempted to portray the struggles that a young male teenager has in coming to terms with his sexuality on his own and the struggles that he has with acceptance in the world at large. Don't get me wrong - those struggles really struck me but what also struck me were the struggles that Billy experienced during the AIDS epidemic in the 80's. I think that, in part, it was because I grew up in the 80's and I don't remember hearing a whole lot about that - my parents didn't really talk to me a whole lot about it - but I learned a lot about it in high school and of course in college and have done a lot of reading since. That part of the book really struck me the most and remains with me a lot. I think that the parts that Irving dedicates to the AIDS epidemic is devastatingly beautiful and perhaps some of the best prose I've seen from anyone and particularly from him.

I loved this book, as I have loved most of his novels.

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