It's 1955, William Francis Dean, Jr. (AKA Billy) is enrolled at Favorite River Academy, a all-boys prep school, in First Sister, Vermont. He is bisexual, and as the cliches and stereotypes demand, obsessed with his and everyone else's (yes, EVERYONE else's) sexuality. Thus opens, In One Person, John Irving's 13th novel, but the first I've read.
In addition to the caricatures of teenage boys, the book is peopled with stereotypical gays, lesbians, transvestites, and parents. Despite this manage of (titillating?) sexual differences, the book aspires to literary heights with extensive references to the classical canon with special attention to Shakespeare, Dickens, and Flaubert. I was waiting for the sly reference to John Irving himself, but the author thankfully resisted this affectation.
However, this modesty is balanced by the strangely recursive plot where Billy is an author who writes of sympathetic LGBT characters to preach for more tolerance among his readers. In One Person is certainly an example of such a book. This structure makes the book both more of a heavy-hand polemic and a clever literary exercise.
The book has two parts. The first half is Billy's self-obsessed, sexuality-obsessed years in high school among incidents of sexual yearning, anxiety, confusion, repression, discovery and deceit. As if to balance the message of tolerance with the traditional cautionary messages, the second half kills off almost everyone, usually from the horror of AIDS, but car crashes and senility get their share of victims.
I felt this book missed it's boldly stated goal of promoting tolerance by including too many characters paraded like a circus sideshow, and not enough characters with enough depth to be sympathetic. As a final poetic demonstration of self-loathing the author biography highlight's John Irving's long wrestling career; wrestlers are given a special role in this book as a class including those with poor impulse control, and the often cliched homophobic homoeroticism.
Read at your own risk.
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