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Stuck in the Middle With You

Book review: In One Person by John Irving

Published August 15, 2012 at 6:30 a.m.


John Irving’s latest novel, In One Person, is a densely packed book, the literary equivalent of a multicourse dinner served with a tiny fork. The novel displays plenty of ambition as it alternates between overcooked and underdone sections, but it ultimately goes past substantive into the land of too filling. These very busy but somehow still slow-moving 425 pages leave the reader feeling gorged and dissatisfied.

The eponymous Person of the title is William Abbott (Billy), the bisexual protagonist and youngest of the multigenerational Abbotts living in the ur-small town of First Sister, Vt. Located by the Favorite River, First Sister is ground zero for the multitude of crises that pepper the novel’s pages. Think a chillier Winesburg, Ohio.

Once again wearing the influence of 19th-century novelists on his sleeve, Irving painstakingly traces every particular of Abbott’s life (from birth to senior living), the lives of his Abbott forebears and those of sundry friends, family members and foes trying (with various degrees of success) to survive the latter half of the 20th century. The novel places so much emphasis on history that its pacing — or lack thereof — becomes a glaring deficit. The narrative moves without momentum or even an occasional propulsive burst, eventually desensitizing the reader to the difficulties Abbott faces in his life.

One could even call the authorial voice monotone. Statements such as “At the time, this was all I knew; it was not a lot to know” are painfully commonplace. That’s an unfortunate register for the mostly linear story of Abbott’s troubled childhood, his equally troubled sexual awakening and subsequent history.

The novel begins with a dictum that will haunt Billy Abbott throughout his life: “We are formed by what we desire.” That ought to give any discerning reader a good idea of the struggle inherent in one person, Billy or anyone else. But when Irving moves from this internal conflict to the external struggle between Billy’s bisexuality and small-town prejudices, he wastes the opportunity for a bold treatment of this theme by relying on stereotypes.

The bulk of the novel serves to highlight the inconsistencies and assumptions inherent in the attitudes of First Sister’s inhabitants. That’s been done before, plenty of times. Whether it’s the young boy with speech impediments growing up to like men, or the cross-dressing grandfather who is viewed as a genetic forebear of homosexual tendencies, each of Irving’s characters seems like a stock figure in an oft-told tale of intolerance. Frustratingly, he doesn’t raise them above the level of ciphers.

When Irving leaves this monotonous landscape, it’s only to go off-road completely. Of particular irritation are the often lurid, surprising and compromising situations into which he forces characters so as to keep everyone somehow affected by, or engaged with, sexuality. For example, there is the nearly bludgeoning symbolism of Miss Frost, the librarian with a glaringly obvious secret, who gives young Billy a copy of Giovanni’s Room before introducing him to an evening in her sub-library “bedroom and bathroom — formerly, the coal bin.”

Overall, In One Person is a novel too focused on ambiguity. It’s neither he nor she, neither here nor there, with desire being the only constant and the most ambiguous element of all. But that is damaging to the reader’s interest level, and, ultimately, to the book’s readability. The narrative never takes off. Billy plods along in the dark forest of life until he comes to a fork in the road. Instead of choosing a tine, he opines, laments, considers and eventually ages while never moving forward. Virtually every page offers repetitious heartbreak, but the ping-ponging between man and woman, hate and love, and other emotional dichotomies leaves the reader with a sense of anxious hand-wringing after the first hundred or so pages. We somehow end up with a poorly drawn sketch of a man we know everything about.

Even on the very last page, Billy Abbott remains a shadowy figure as he begs another character — if not the reader — to avoid “put[ting] a label on me — don’t make me a category before you get to know me.” If we don’t know him on the last page of the novel, what hope is there? Given his allusions to Madame Bovary, Irving surprisingly didn’t take better notes on Flaubert’s methods of character development.

Unfortunately, the most interesting part of the novel is interesting for the wrong reasons. Toward the end, Irving attempts to cover every major event in gay history between Stonewall and AIDS. By the last page, he has extended the chronology to the creation and promotion of LGBTQ communities and, seemingly as an afterthought, quickly plopped Billy Abbott back into the plot, making him come full circle. In a rush to tie the narrative together, Irving stamps out any meaning that can be taken from the history, or the way it can be related to Billy’s life. It’s another in a series of asides or pedantic injections of knowledge — whether book titles, play synopses or chronologies.

Overall, a catalog of quirks, details, family lineages and laments makes for a thin literary soup. In One Person is more interesting than some of Irving’s recent efforts, but it could have been much more. Billy Abbott is no Garp or Owen Meany.

"In One Person" by John Irving, Simon & Schuster, 448 pages. $28.