John Irving's new novel, In One Person, opens in First River, Vt., the small logging community where narrator Billy Abbott is being raised by his wounded, priggish mother, who has been abandoned by his (supposedly) caddish father. Growing up in the shadow of this betrayal, Billy worries he has inherited some unsavoury genetic trait from his father.
Specifically, he worries about his propensity to form crushes "on the wrong people." The riddle of how crushes are formed and the constellation of unanswerable questions it raises – do we shape our desires or are we shaped by them, and are we in any way capable of judging them – is at the core of this searching, deeply affecting novel.
One of the people Billy develops a crush on is the handsome Richard Abbott, a newly arrived English teacher at the local private school. After Billy confides in him, Richard tries to be reassuring. "There are no wrong people to have crushes on," he asserts. "You cannot will yourself to have, or not to have, a crush on someone."
Thinking that literature will lend credence to this opinion, Richard takes Billy to the public library, where they encounter public librarian Miss Frost. She is broad-shouldered and powerful, with mannish hands and delicate, girlish breasts, and Billy immediately develops a crush on her.
When, soon after, he discovers Miss Frost is a transsexual – a former wrestling champion who used to be known as Al Frost – it only deepens his attraction to her. "In less than a minute of excited, secretive longing," Billy tells the reader, "I desired to become a writer and to have sex with Miss Frost – not necessarily in that order."
Billy's mother marries Richard and the three of them move into his faculty apartment on campus. Here he meets (and develops a crush on) his lifelong friend Elaine (who arouses him most when she allows him to wear her bra) and Jacques Kittredge, a debonair and macho wrestler on whom Billy develops another crush.
Even as Billy persists in this understanding of his longings as misplaced or misdirected, they define him, belong to him wholly. "I know myself best by my persistent crushes on the wrong people," he tells the reader, "the way I was formed by how long I kept the secret of myself from the people I loved."
Billy emerges intact from the insularity of Vermont, but the assurances that should arrive with adulthood are withheld because of his bisexuality, which remains troubling to his lovers. "My very existence as a bisexual was not welcomed by my gay friends; they either refused to believe that I really liked women, or they felt I was somehow dishonest (or hedging my bets) about being gay." His denial of category and community takes on a particular significance in the final third of the novel, when AIDS appears and he must watch as most of the characters who peopled the early part of the book die, painfully.
Does it make sense, now, to speak of late John Irving? Does In One Person bear the same relationship to The World According to Garp that, say, Shakespeare's Twelfth Night does to The Tempest? As Woody Allen's Annie Hall to Midnight in Paris? Irving's characters in this novel do spend a great deal of time talking about Shakespeare, about the gender-bending cross-dressing at the heart of the Elizabethan theatre, of course, but also the inextricability of the comic from the tragic, and the attempt in Shakespeare's late plays to look forward, to imagine the world as a different, more humane place.
"If you live long enough," Billy's stepfather, Richard Abbott, advises him, "it's a world of epilogues." The line takes us back to the closing pages of Garp, the novel that made Irving a household name more than 30 years ago. "An epilogue," according to Garp, "is more than a body count. An epilogue, in the disguise of wrapping up the past, is really a way of warning us about the future."
It is a deliberate echo, one that situates In One Person as a defiant response to the increasingly regressive and reactionary currents that persist on the U.S. political scene and continue to darken its horizon. This is a novel that reaffirms the centrality of Irving as the voice of social justice and compassion in contemporary American literature. His work has been indispensible over the past four decades, and it will prove more important, more urgently resonant and more prescient, in the decades to come.
Steven Hayward teaches in the English department at Colorado College. His most recent novel is Don't Be Afraid.