Disclaimer: If you ever plan on reading In One Person, by John Irving, then I absolutely insist that you don’t read this posting, there will be spoilers! And if the idea of reading a book about gay people scares the you know what out of you, then I invite you to keep reading (hopefully with an open heart and mind)!
I read a book by John Irving last year called, A Widow for One Year and I was instantly a fan. I had also seen The Cider House Rules in theaters over a decade ago and had fallen in love with that story. So needless to say, I knew when I read that book last year that I was not done with John Irving. So imagine my surprise when I accompanied a co-worker to the library on campus only for her to show me her little secret: The library actually has new release books, and most the time you can find what you are looking for because the students are too busy checking out books needed for academic purposes rather than leisurely reading. So as I spun the new release rack around and saw the new John Irving book, I couldn’t resist! I knew any public library would have a wait and I needed to line something up in case I ever finished that beast known as Les Miserables (I did and it was amazing). But this is not a review of that book, for while Les Mis made a socioeconomic statement for its time, I believe John Irving’s book has the capability to leave a powerful resounding statement about the times in which we live and about an “issue” that even played a role in our last political election.
Irving’s book follows a boy (William, Bill, Billy) from his developmental years all the way through to his employment later in life at the Academy that we saw him attend as a young boy. The boy is the narrator, and he is telling the story from his later years. We also know that the boy becomes a writer. We learn early on in the book that the boy feels as though he has a habit of developing crushes “on the wrong people”. It doesn’t take long for us to learn that the boy is bi-sexual. I knew this would be a book that would challenge me, I’m a very liberal person, but that said I have always had a hard time understanding cross dressers and transgender people and this book delves right into those topics. I would never say that I wish any ill-will towards people that cross dress or switch sexes (obviously), I just haven’t been exposed to that culture and it leaves me feeling ignorant. So, that said, I knew this book was going to be unlike anything I ever encountered.
In the boy’s hometown in Vermont, there are so many characters! The way the story is written I couldn’t help but try to guess at who was gay? Who was bi? Who was a woman that used to be a man? Or still has man parts but wants to be perceived and treated like a woman? At one point, I declared to my good friend and neighbor, “I think everyone in this book is gay!” What is the author trying to do?
I kept with it though, and I’m glad I did; because midway through I came to a chapter where the boy’s first love interest (the town librarian who is a transsexual and much older) teaches the boy a wrestling move.
“'You will one day be bullied, William,’ Miss Frost said… ‘You’re going to get pushed around, sooner or later…’” She explains to him about the cruelty that people will undoubtedly show to him at one point in his life and she teaches him a wrestling move that will hopefully be enough to fight off his opponent for a moment, if only to give him enough time to run. In the gym watching this lesson between the teenager and his older love interest are the boy’s step-father, uncle, grandfather, his best friend (Elaine), and the wrestling coach. While the book has its fair share of people who are upset with William because of who he is, these people (in the gym) seem to accept him and understand that Miss Frost is teaching him a lesson that might one day save his life. Any reader of this book is also in the gym getting to see this scene unfold, and much like William’s community in the bleachers I found myself wondering as I always have before: Why would someone want to hurt someone because of their sexual orientation? Why are there people that are so cruel? And it’s at this point that I realized: it no longer mattered that half the town seemed gay what mattered is that I had gotten to know these characters and had extreme amounts of compassion for their story and who they innately are.
As I continued reading I noticed that the next half of the book shifted drastically—whereas the first half seemed so sexually promiscuous, the last half was devastating—The 80’s came and with it the AIDS epidemic. We watch as characters from William’s life pass away and we worry that he might someday die of the same thing or of a hate crime.
While we don’t ever know how William’s life ends we do get to see a lot of things come to fruition. When a son of someone from William’s past shows up to confront him about his sexually perverse novels and how unnatural they are and how unfair it is that he fills these books with a bunch of sexually confused people only to have the readers find compassion for the characters along the way---
And it clicks! John Irving is a genius! He takes us as readers on that exact journey!!! And just when I think: it is 2012, I have friends that are gay and I am liberal; I realized that I still rode the roller coaster of acceptance that John Irving so masterfully set up in what is sure to be another bestseller.