Wednesday, May 23, 2012

In One Person

In One Person by John Irving (2012)

Billy is raised by a single mother in the small town of First Sister, Vermont. As he grows up, he begins to have what he calls "crushes on the wrong people," such as a guy on the high school wrestling team and the local transgendered librarian. Spanning the better part of Billy's life from childhood into his sixties, the novel weaves a complicated tapestry of Billy's life and relationships and features a large and colorful cast of characters. 

This is actually a tough story to describe. There's not really a plot, but many threads of stories about Billy's family, his missing father, his friendship with Elaine, his romantic relationships, and his obsession with the wrestler Kittredge. Much of it seemed comically exaggerated and outlandish, which makes it all rather unbelievable, but fairly entertaining. The narrator is prone to melodrama (and can be annoyingly whiny), yet is fairly flip about serious things like a second-hand story he hears of a woman seducing her own teenaged son. The most prominent characters, Billy and Elaine, didn't develop much over the course of the novel and even in their later years I kept picturing them both as I pictured them in high school. They spoke and acted the same as they did when they were younger and I had to keep reminding myself that many years had passed.

I feel a bit conflicted about this novel. On the one hand, I want to complain that it's unrealistic for a small town in Vermont to contain so many people who are gay, trans, or cross-dressers. But on the other hand, once I got into the story - and it did take a bit - I was quite content keep reading and reading it in every spare moment I had. Although at times it felt like a lesson in tolerance and AIDS-awareness, I couldn't help but enjoy the humor and the quirky characters. 

More than anything, reading In One Person has made me want to go back and read - and re-read- older John Irving novels. I loved some of his earlier works and although this isn't nearly as good as The World According to Garp or Cider House Rules, it did remind me why I like Irving so much.

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