“In One Person” has many of the things that one expects from a John Irving novel: It is set, mostly, in northern New England (in the fictional town of First Sister, Vt.); its protagonist is a novelist (as was true in 1978’s “The World According to Garp” — a book I loved, and the book “In One Person” most closely resembles in its themes, if not always in prose style). There are no bears, but there are wrestlers and a prep school. German is taught and spoken, and Austria is visited. There are big questions about the narrator and novelist Billy Abbot’s father, who has been more or less absent since Billy’s birth. There’s lots of sexual awakening and questioning and questing, lots of gender bending, lots of sex.
I know this list sounds dismissive, but I don’t mean it to be. Sometimes Irving seems haunted by his obsessions, and sometimes he seems merely fond of them, but in any case, they clearly matter to him. These obsessions might be familiar to devoted (or even casual) Irving readers, but that does not necessarily mean they are tired.
And the obsessions don’t seem tired or rote in this, Irving’s 13th novel, either. On the contrary, it’s one of his most energetic, impassioned books — but too often that energy ends up trumping artistry. Indeed, “In One Person” is perhaps most accurately described by Larry, Billy’s former teacher and lover, who says, “Just look at what you write, Bill — overkill is your middle name!”
Quickly: Billy is born into a family with a father who has left under mysterious circumstances and whom the rest of the family is loathe to talk about; a mother who seems to hate Billy’s father and who has remarried a kind English teacher at the local prep school; an aunt who hates everyone and everything; a drunk uncle who also works at the school; and a grandfather who owns a sawmill, plays female roles in the First Sister Players, and who seems have had a long history of dressing in women’s clothes outside the theater as well.
It’s no surprise, then, that Billy has questions — about his family, and about his own sexuality. These questions cause him and his novel, which begins when Billy is 15 and ends in the present day when he is in his late 60s, to ping pong back and forth through time and space — to New York, San Francisco, Europe — in search of happiness, love, and (sometimes explicitly, but mostly implicitly) his father. But repeatedly, the book returns to Billy’s formative years in First Sister. There, for instance, he finds himself attracted to his male classmate Kittredge, but he’s also attracted to his speech therapist’s daughter Elaine and to the town’s public librarian, Miss Frost, who has her own secrets — she says to Billy “It appears to me . . . that you haven’t heard everything — about me, I mean.”
It is easy for the reader to guess what Miss Frost is hiding, even though Billy himself has a somewhat harder time. But the important thing is that Miss Frost teaches Billy — about himself and his sexuality — and I say this is important because “In One Person” is a very teacherly novel. It sets out to teach the reader about bisexuality (Billy is bisexual); about various codes of conduct and hierarchies in the gay, lesbian, bi, transgender, and transsexual communities; about the history of gay rights and homophobia in this country; and about the AIDS epidemic.
Some of the prose devoted to AIDS victims is particularly devastating. For instance, the passages in which Billy visits various dying classmates, friends, and lovers at home and in hospitals include some of Irving’s best writing, ever. But too often the writing is either pedantic (Billy often holds forth on subjects with which we already are familiar: “I missed the Stonewall riots! Yes, I know it was the street hustlers and drag queens who first fought back, but the resultant protest rally in Sheridan Square — the night after the raid — was the start of something”), or it’s wildly theatrical.
The latter is an especial problem: Not only is this novel cluttered with exclamatories and italics, but its dialogue is full of characters saying each other’s names in conversation, even if there are only two people having the conversation and neither the reader nor the characters should need to be reminded of who is saying what (this is one representative exchange: “ ‘How about a [sexual act], Tom?’ . . . ‘I was being serious, Bill.’ . . . ‘So was I, Tom.’ ” All of this is too bad: This is a nakedly ambitious novel, one with moments of high beauty and terror and comedy, but also one that ends up being not nearly as great as it wants to be.