In One Person by John Irving packs a lot of storytelling, though not necessarily up to the author’s usual high standards, into one novel in the style of his literary hero Charles Dickens. It tells of the “coming of age,” emotional development, and senior wisdom of William “Billy” Abbott nee Dean. The book also develops some of its characters fully and leaves some as unattractive and one-dimensional, not surprising for a novel with so many. The complex characters are generally gay, bisexual, cross-dressers, or are persons sympathetic with LGBT’s (lesbians, gays, bisexuals, transgenders). The undeveloped characters are largely homophobes. Billy is a bisexual whose only regret about his sexuality seems to be that women consider him gay and gays consider him a traitor.
Irving is at his best when developing intricate plot twists involving complex characters, e.g., see GARP and Cider House Rules. He displays his skills well in chapter 10 which focuses on the prep school wrestling team, coaches and fans. Sadly, there are few of the surprising plot developments which we expect of him. Much is disappointingly predictable.
The author presents a sympathetic view of LGBTs. However, their vulgar and offensive activities discourage reader empathy, at least, to this reader. Much of the conduct is distasteful and unappealing to heterosexuals. I expected a tale which might dispel homophobia and intolerance. Instead, I found an attempt to achieve approval of homosexuality, not just acceptance.
Billy meets his biological father late in the book, although he has been the subject of much family discussion from the onset. Billy discovers that his father is gay. The implication is clear that homosexuality is a genetic trait. The only influence in Billy’s early life who is not “straight” is his beloved (by everyone) cross-dressing maternal grandfather, Harry. Is Grandpa Harry’s influence eugenic or euthenic or both? Certainly Harry is a very interesting character.
Billy grew up in, and embraced the “if it feels good, do it” ethos of the 1960’s. He says, “You live your life at the time you live it—you don’t have much of an overview when what’s happening to you is still happening.” That is his explanation for his choices; he is not for discussing the unkind activities of others.
I found the explicit homoeroticism offensive. It doesn’t engender sympathy. If anything, it kindles the embers of intolerance—clearly not the author’s aim. Is it necessary to the story? Couldn’t the homosexual acts occur “offstage?” The story could then be about abuse, intolerance, and discrimination. I don’t need to know the techniques of the homosexual to appreciate the unkindness he must endure.
Promiscuity is a factor in the gay life (dare I say “life-style?”). Not all “straights” are monogamous but Billy “…added monogamy to the list of distasteful things I associated with the exclusively heterosexual life…” When in Europe at age 19 with another young man who believed Billy to be the love of his life, Billy observes, “…Poor Tom was afraid he would always be unloved; he imagined he could force the search for the love of his life into a single summer of one-stop shopping—I’d just started.” Billy considered “the concept of ‘the couple’…a dinosaur idea.”
The sexual observations, preferences, and opinions, of a teenager are certainly problematic at best but Irving seems to embrace them, at least for the purpose of this novel. As a partner in a happy 52 year marriage which was blessed with two wonderful and brilliant children and five delightful grandchildren, I find Billy’s opinions disturbing and, at least for me, downright wrong.
In the final scene a 68 year old Billy instructs a younger man, “…please don’t put a label on me—don’t make me a category before you get to know me!” Aren’t we all a collection of labels, e.g., physical size, ethnicity, education, philosophy, etc? Are not some labels more descriptive of some than others? E.g. Robert Wadlow, the Alton Giant; Clarence Darrow, the lawyer; Mick Jagger, the performer. Given current prevailing attitudes and predilections, how would “bisexual,” if accurate, not be considered an appropriate label or category? Certainly, at least as much as the maligned prep school physician about whom we know only two labels: “m.d.” and “homophobe.”
Altogether a worthwhile read by an excellent writer but not on par with Cider House Rules.