The Nation


Book Review

Somewhere the passion's lost

John Irving's Billy is just like Garp, but gay rights now replace women's

In One Person

John Irving

Published by Simon & Schuster, 2012

Available at leading bookshops

The author of three small, competent novels, John Irving stumbled upon riches and global fame with his fourth. In 1978, "The World According to Garp" was, like "Love Story" and "Fear of Flying", the novel that people who don't read novels read.

It won America's National Book Award and was made into a hit movie with Robin Williams. The novel struck a nerve in the American public because it took on the women's-liberation movement from the positive perspective of an avidly heterosexual writer and amateur wrestler. Its moral was "Be nice to women."

I enjoyed his next two novels, "The Hotel New Hampshire" and "The Cider House Rules", which again were made into movies. But since then his star has steadily waned. Where formerly a new John Irving novel was announced on the front page of the New York Times Review of Books, this time around the book was consigned to Page 11.

The novel in question, Irving's 13th, is "In One Person". Like all of his post-"Garp" novels, it is too long. Irving would call his novels Dickensian. I would call them fat.

"In One Person" seems another grasp at the golden ring of outrageous fame. The similarities to "Garp" are legion. The bulk of the action takes place at an all-boy boarding school in rural New England. The hero, Billy Abbott, is missing a father and wants to become a writer. Wrestling looms large in the plot, involving both the villain and the heroine. There's another shift of scene to Vienna. And just about everybody dies in the end.

The moral this time around is "Be nice to gays." And lesbians, bisexuals and transsexuals.

As "Garp" plunged into a literary market roiled by the question of women's liberation, "In One Person" stakes its claim for attention at a time of gay marriage.

In pitching his first novel - about a closeted gay soldier who dies in Vietnam - to a Hollywood producer in 1969, Billy makes his political agenda specific. He'll enlist to serve his country, he says, when anti-gay legislation is repealed, "when psychiatrists stop diagnosing me and my friends as clinically abnormal, medically competent freaks in need of 'rehabilitation'; when the media stop representing us as sissy, pansy, fairy, child-molesting perverts!" There are a lot of pedantic passages like this.

The novel lacks, first, the quirkiness and humour of Irving's best seller of 34 years ago. But still in place, and more exaggerated than ever, are Irving's trademark literary tics. He often misuses italic type and corrals chunks of sentences inside parentheses.

Billy Abbott's large and eccentric family is headed by a cross-dressing lumber magnate. His father turns out to have been an exceptionally beautiful player of Shakespeare's female roles. Two of Billy's classmates turn to drag in adulthood. The town librarian, Miss Frost, is six-foot-two with suspiciously broad shoulders and large hands.

You can see where this is heading. Billy becomes a famous bisexual novelist. He has affairs with men and women and transsexuals. But none of these encounters have passion. Even Billy's first lovemaking, with Miss Frost, is described mechanically.

In Vienna he has his first romance with a woman, an American opera soprano named Esmeralda. And this is how he describes it:

"If I had hesitated to have my first actual girlfriend experience, a part of the reason was that I'd discovered that I liked anal intercourse. (I liked it a lot!) No doubt there was a part of me that feared what vaginal intercourse might be like."

And three pages later: "Thus I was introduced to a vagina ... For someone who had long viewed that part with trepidation, I was introduced to a vagina in ways I found most intriguing and appealing. I truly loved sex with Esmeralda, and I loved her, too."

This is hardly the language of towering passion. Billy gives us report cards on his lovers, with never a dollop of feeling.

True sentiment only arrives late in the novel, with harrowing descriptions of the Aids plague that cuts down a number of the novel's characters. These are powerful descriptions, heartbreaking, and never maudlin.

The novel continues up to 2010, when Billy is pushing 70. He's returned to his old boarding school to stage Shakespeare's plays. The school has long gone co-ed and even has an LGBT club. His lead actress in "Romeo and Juliet" is a budding 17-year-old aspiring transsexual named Georgia, described as "a knockout". Such is progress.

But "In One Person" remains a boring, mediocre, didactic screed.

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