IN ONE PERSON by John Irving (Knopf), 448 pages, $34.95 cloth. Rating: NNNN
I've never figured out how John Irving does it. His breakthrough novel, The World According To Garp, gives more insight into feminism than the writings of most active female radicals. Almost 35 years later, with In One Person, the presumably straight author digs deep into the complexities of gender identity from the 50s through the age of AIDS.
Most of the action takes place in a New England private school in the 50s and 60s, where student Billy gets crushed out on all the wrong people, including mercurial near-bully Kittredge and mysterious librarian Miss Frost. Turns out Billy's a true pansexual, attracted to all kinds of people. His most important friendship, however, is with Elaine - a terrific, strong teenaged female character - and in describing it Irving gracefully shows how a nonsexual connection between teens can be transformative.
The stage plays a key role as well. Billy's dad is the artistic director of the town's community theatre troupe, with which the students often perform. Irving uses his characters to expound on the virtues of the great plays in the canon while insinuating all kinds of gender issues into the works of Shakespeare.
He actually revisits many of Garp's themes, including wrestling, transvestism (Billy's grandfather is a happy-go-lucky cross-dresser) and the challenges of keeping even the best relationships together.
And like Garp, In One Person has both hilarious and tragic components. During its time frame, from the 50s through the 80s, sexual themes keep changing dramatically: repression in the 50s, liberation in the 60s, gay liberation in the 70s, the devastation of AIDS in the 80s. Irving makes these transitions skilfully in his tender tale.
Irving launches In One Person tonight (Thursday, May 24) at the Toronto Reference Library. See listing.
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