Family snapshots occupy an entire wall of the study in the Toronto apartment author John Irving shares with his wife, Janet Turnbull. Master of the meandering narrative, he knows all the stories they tell, all the events and characters they memorialize, even (after one false start) the current ages of all four grandchildren.
But there is only one family photo on display in the adjacent living room where the super-fit, now 70-year-old author sits down to discuss his lucky 13th novel, In One Person: A professional portrait of a remarkably beautiful young person in an elegant wooden frame. A girl or a boy, he or she could pass as either a young Audrey Hepburn or a young Warren Beatty. Gorgeous in any case, beaming winningly from the end table as the distinguished author unwinds a long story.
Like all Irving tales – and indeed the new novel, which explores issues of sexual identity through the eyes of a young bisexual man in love with a transgender woman – its trajectory loops and rolls before arriving at its surprising destination.
“It would be completely erroneous, as Everett and I know, to say that I wrote In One Person because I have a gay son,” the author declares, keen to make it known that the inspiration for the novel occurred almost a decade before he finally sat down to write it. “Twelve years ago I didn’t know my youngest son was gay,” he adds. “He didn’t know.”
Everett just beams from his frame, apparently less concerned than his father about being misconstrued as the inspiration for In One Person. His father explains that even though the book is not about Everett, it is for him. Keeping Everett in mind as his “ideal reader,” Irving says, sped him through his latest novel in half the time he normally takes to finish one.
Essentially a long plea for the tolerance of sexual differences, In One Person is narrated by Billy Abbott, an unrepressed bisexual author who describes in vivid detail his sexual coming-of-age in a New England prep school in the 1950s, dwelling especially on his lifelong love for a local librarian, Ms. Frost, who had once been a champion wrestler at the same school. The territory is familiar Irvingania, albeit with a marked preponderance of sexually ambiguous characters.
But the author bristles at the suggestion there is anything extreme about the sexual behaviour of his characters in this highly charged little town. “Excuse me, what about Garp’s mother, Jenny Fields?” he says, referring to his reputation-making bestseller of 1978, The World According to Garp. “She has sex once with a comatose man and never has sex again. That’s radical.”
Dr. Larch, “the old abortionist in The Cider House Rules,” likewise has sex once in his long life, according to Irving. Then there’s John Wheelwright, the “non-practising homosexual” who narrates A Prayer for Owen Meany.
“Those are radical sexual lives,” he says. As yet another misfit, living a difficult life at a time of societal rigidity, Billy Abbott fits right in with the many outrageous characters from Irvingania.
“I could think of no greater misfit than a male bisexual, who in my generation was distrusted by just about everyone,” Irving says. “To most straight men a bisexual guy is a gay guy. To most straight women a bisexual man is doubly untrustworthy: He could leave you for another woman or a guy.”
That’s what makes him a hero in Irving’s book – no victim, but a figure of tremendous resilience and self-confidence. “And whose bravery above his own might he more respect?” the author asks. “That would be the transgenders.”
Returning to the front lines of the sex and genders wars is something Irving once vowed never to do. “I remember thinking most naively when I finished Garp that I hated that subject – the sexual animosities. I thought, ‘My God, I’ll never write about that again.’”
Still the battles go on – as hot as ever – and Irving at the forefront is back in his element. But “the younger, angry writer” who created Garp is no more, he says. His latest novel proposes “cautious optimism” for the future, according to the author. “I hope I’m less cynical at 70 than I was in my 30s,” he says. He is heartened by the innovations of Everett’s generation in the LGBT community he has come to know in later life.
Does he hope that his own imaginative coming-out will help change the world? In a word, the answer is no. But there is never just a word with Irving, and the answer slowly circles back to Everett, the fount of new-found optimism. “Maybe you can help the young reader who recognizes himself or herself among those characters,” he allows.
It was Everett who first suggested that notion, according to Irving, during a conversation in which father and son discussed the perils of publishing In One Person. “I said to Everett, ‘You know, it’s no secret that you’re gay, and it’s no secret that someone’s going to ask me about you and the connection to this book. And I’m reluctant to talk about it.”
Everett, 20, reassured his old man, saying he wasn’t worried about the consequences. “And he said something very interesting,” according to his father. “He said, ‘Suppose a young Billy Abbott finds out about this book, even from a lousy interview with you, and they read it.
“‘I know this book is for me,’ Everett said. ‘But it’s also for them, isn’t it?’”
“That may be a long and roundabout way to answer the question about changing the world,” Irving concludes. “But I couldn’t think of a better way to do it.”