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Book Review: In One Person by John Irving

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In One Person by John Irving
In One Person
by John Irving
Simon & Schuster, 448 pp.
CLR [rating:4.5]

An adult’s retrospective view on a consciousness evolved.

John Irving’s In One Person is not just a window into the soul – revealing the core of the main character Billy Abbott, but it shines a light on all of us; society as a whole, by showing us where we have been and casting the hope of understanding for our futures. And my, how much we’ve learned and grown. Juxtaposed with our current Proposition 8, gay marriage-equality world, it seems to be set in a time long ago; a time when even our closets were closeted. We witness the internal agony of Billy, an awkward teenage boy with a mysterious and virtually unknown father coming of age as he struggles with his romantic crushes on all the wrong people. His best friend’s mother, his handsome step-father and drama coach, the beautiful and sadistic champion wrestler at his private high school, and perhaps, most compelling is the small town librarian who for all her good manners, skirts and projected femininity is still oddly masculine in stature with her large hands. She unleashes his uncertain sexuality. But Billy loves them all – men, women and those in between. We see Billy’s journey to understanding himself and the people who love and protect and reject him along the way.

It is the late 1950’s and sex is already a repressed matter. Good people don’t discuss it in pleasant company. Good girls “don’t” before they are married and pregnant girls are not really pregnant – they are just on extended visits with their family out of the country for nine months or so. And of course, all men and boys are heterosexual and masculine. There is nothing else. As a questioning adolescent, 17 years of age in 1959, Billy is alone in world that does not recognize him, has no place for him, desperately wishes he were invisible and mercilessly teases him. And it was not my imagination that every other word out of many of the older boys’ mouths was “homo” or “fag” or “queer”; these purposefully hurtful words seemed to me to be the worst things you could say about another boy at prep school.

Billy didn’t fit the mold – his schoolmates’, his mother’s or his family’s. And he could only console himself with his own counsel: Was I the only boy at the all-boys’ school who found that the wrestling matches gave me a homoerotic charge? I doubt it, but boys like me kept their heads down. And keep his head down he does. He hides who he truly is, lusts for his various loves in secret and agonizes over his unnatural feelings which the school doctor advises must be suppressed by all boys who may be feeling such things. It’s wrong and it has to be treated. Rejected by many, young Billy is loved by a few key people who have lived their own tortured lives under the constraints of a button-downed community.

Contemplating his life while he is now in his 70’s, Billy ponders his cross-dressing grandfather: Was Grandpa Harry more than the occasional cross-dresser? Today, would we call my grandpa a closeted gay man who only acted as a woman under the more permissible circumstances of his time? I honestly don’t know. If my generation was repressed, and we certainly were, I can only imagine that my grandfather’s generation –whether or not Grandpa Harry truly was a homosexual—flew well under the existing radar.

And therein shines the beauty of Irving’s tale, who we used to be as a society and who we have become. How these people who dared to feel different about their sexuality were treated, ridiculed, harassed, ignored, suppressed, repressed and in many cases cast aside. But over the five decades that we see Billy, we are shown a society that has grown more informed if not more compassionate; a society that has grown more tolerant if not more accepting and a world that makes place for acknowledging everyone instead of treating them as if they were invisible. And so they are no longer invisible. They are activists and advocates. When Billy returns to his high school almost fifty years later he is startled by the assertiveness of the teenagers there. The Lesbian, Gay, Bi-Sexual Transgender community is no longer invisible, it’s a full- fledged student club on campus and it’s not just LGBT. It’s LGBTQ.

What’s the fucking Q for? The almost seventy-year old Billy asks. Quarrelsome, perhaps? He is surprised to learn the Q is for Questioning. Something when he was in high school, he was never really given the space to do. And now that space exists, not just for people like Billy but for society as a whole to learn from and grow and experience in others. Time and people have changed our collective consciousness. And though all may not be in agreement with this new diversity in sexuality, almost all are aware that people are individuals and they have the right to be judged for who they are as people.

This book is a godsend for everyone who has ever felt different for any reason. In it they will find a glimpse of themselves. But what they will also find is that after accepting yourself, the hope of acceptance by others will become a reality. Young Billy Abbott made it through the difficulty of adolescence in the 50’s and the 60’s when there was no place for him and he lived to tell about it. And despite the mystery, uncertainty and tragedy of his formative years, Billy reaches the point many, many decades later where he scoffs at society’s labels and proudly says … “please don’t put a label on me—don’t make me a category before you get to know me!”

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