Tuesday, 9 April 2013

What I'm reading: an LGBT novel from the great JOHN IRVING


Very much a 'companion piece' to The World According to Garp, John Irving's breakthrough fourth novel (1978), In One Person explores, at considerable depth, the community of lesbians, gays, bisexuals and transsexuals (Billy Abbott, his narrator hero, is not keen on the 'transgender' word and happily admits to a major passion for 'chicks with dicks'). Transsexuals and bisexuals are the main focus: both groups are treated with sensitivity and Irving's trademark warm humour. Billy's grandpa Harry is the cross-dressing star of amateur theatricals; his appearances, from plays in Billy's teenage years, to Harry's dotage in a care home, provide some the book's funniest scenes.

Born in 1942, Billy grows up in a small town in Vermont where his stepfather teaches at the local boys-only private school. School plays and the town's dramatic society loom large in Billy's teenage years. Chapter Two is called 'Crushes on the Wrong People', which is to be the 'leitmotif' of Billy's early life. He develops a huge crush on Kittredge, the arrogant and unattainable Golden Boy 'jock' in his dorm. He also has a crush on the town librarian, Miss Frost, who introduces him to the classics of literature (all the way up to James Baldwin's Giovanni's Room, the first truly outstanding gay novel); Miss Frost will shape the writer that Billy is destined to become and also gives a nudge to his complex sexuality. She is another of Irving's great comic creations, plainly evolved from Garp's Roberta Muldoon (gloriously played by John Lithgow in the movie).

Most readers are sure to second-guess Miss Frost's Big Secret before Billy does. She and Kittredge dominate the first two-thirds of the novel which is perhaps a bit too long: there is some repetition in the chronicle of Billy's confused teens - too much Shakespeare, too much Ibsen. When the timeline moves forward it's a sudden jump to the Eighties, the era of AIDS, in which Billy loses many friends and a few lovers. Irving reminds us in harrowing and unflinching detail of all those initially fatal conditions that afflicted people with a compromised immune system. The narrative only regains its humour when Billy delves into the last of his family's secrets, in Madrid and back in Vermont.

There's a lot of sex in the book, some of it laugh-out-loud hilarious. An operatic soprano girlfriend hits an E-flat during orgasm, but Billy can't hear it because her thighs have enveloped his ears. There's some wrestling - a recurring theme in several of his novels - but the only bears (another of his trademarks) are bearded gays in Toronto bars!

Even more than Garp, this novel reads like autobiography; are we to infer that the author is letting a cat out of the bag? Probably not. One of Billy's lovers (they meet in Vienna - another location revisited here) says: "his fiction sounds as much like a memoir as he can make it sound." Yes, indeedy. Occasionally maddening, always engaging, deeply affecting, In One Person finds John Irving at the very peak of his powers. Other writers, LBGT or straight, live in his shadow.