In One Person John Irving

Doubleday, pp.429, £18.99

‘You are in the polymorphous-perverse stage,’ the school psychiatrist tells the assembled boys of Favorite River Academy in Vermont in the late 1950s. Just how polymorphously perverse his audience turns out to be would have surprised even Dr Grau, had he not fallen over drunk one evening and frozen to death.

It is no accident that the all-male private school in which much of the action of John Irving’s new novel takes place should be in a town with the unusual name of First Sisters. Irving’s narrator is a bisexual novelist called William Abbott, known to friends and family as Billy. ‘Abbott’ is in fact the name of his stepfather, who teaches at the school: Billy’s real father disappeared during the boy’s infancy and is rarely talked about.

During his time as a pupil at Favorite River, Billy develops a succession of ‘crushes on the wrong people’, including his stepfather, the school’s wrestling champion, Jacques Kitteridge, and several much older women. He somewhat tentatively and innocently explores heterosexuality with his best friend, the conveniently gamine Elaine Hadley, but causes a scandal when he embarks on a relationship with the town’s librarian, Miss Frost.

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Irving springs a number of surprises upon the reader which it would be unfair to reveal here, and it is perhaps enough to say that almost no one in the novel is who or what he or she at first seems. The story comes up to the present day, by which time Aids has cut a swathe through the cast list, bringing in its wake a number of revelations. Billy has affairs with both men and women as well as those hovering somewhere between the genders, but he survives to find out the truth about Kitteridge,  his real father and various other characters. It is Miss Frost who provides him with his most important lesson in human relationships when she admonishes him: ‘My dear boy, please don’t put a label on me — don’t make me a category before you get to know me!’

This command, repeated on the last page, is evidently what Irving wants the reader to take away from the book, and one applauds this without necessarily being convinced by the novel itself. It is to Irving’s great credit that, as a bestselling heterosexual American novelist, he has written what those who indeed put labels on things might call a ‘gay novel’ without treating homosexuality as an ‘issue’.

There is a generosity of spirit here reminiscent of Robertson Davies, but there is also something of the Canadian writer’s bagginess in the prose, a genially lumbering quality to the book and its comedy where what one really needs is nimbleness and wit. For example, the Shakespeare plays put on by the school’s drama club, in which the ambiguities of gender and desire already in the text are emphasised (as they were in Shakespeare’s time) by boys having to take on female roles, provide a neat backdrop to the main action of the story; but Irving seems not to trust his readers to pick up on this and keeps pointing out the parallels. So when Billy is cast as Ariel in The Tempest and told by the director that the sprite’s gender is ‘mutable’, he becomes ‘further confused regarding my (and Ariel’s) sexual orientation’.

The plots and characters of familiar plays are clunkily explained (‘It’s no secret that Shakespeare’s fools are often wiser than the ladies and gentlemen they share the stage with’), while elsewhere crucial pieces of information are repeated. The sense one has of being treated by the novelist as a not very bright student is exacerbated by his incontinent use of italics to point up or draw attention to words — often unnecessarily and even nonsensically, as in this sentence, where the emphasis is immediately contradicted by the adverb: ‘ “Your mom is hotter,” Kitteridge told me matter-of-factly’.  

Even so, In One Person is boldly conceived and energetically executed. If it occasionally lacks plausibility in both plotting and period — the reaction to Billy’s sexual proclivities of some of his family and classmates seems rather wishful thinking for 1950s America — its heart is very much in evidence and very clearly in the right place.

This article first appeared in the print edition of The Spectator magazine, dated

Tags: Book review