John Irving: In One Person

I’m going to begin by telling you about Miss Frost. While I say to everyone that I became a writer because I read a certain novel by Charles Dickens at the formative age of fifteen, the truth is I was younger than that when I first met Miss Frost and imagined having sex with her, and this moment of my sexual awakening also marked the fitful birth of my imagination.


Why I read it

I must confess that this is my first John Irving book, and for a shitty reason too. Someone I didn’t like, liked The World According to Garp, and overnight Irving became anathema to me. Now, my new book club has designated In One Person as our second reading project, so I’ve been forced to overcome my ridiculous second-hand decade-old prejudice and dive in.

What it’s about

Sex, sexy sex! Well, not really. It’s about people. People who often have more sexual prejudices, repressions, deviations, insecurities or tragedies than they have actual sex – and we’re talking about people who have a ton of sex. Those people, and the flow-on effects of their various problems, are the topic of the book.

The whole story is written in the style of a memoir. The narrator is Billy Abbott, a bisexual author in his late sixties who grew up in a small Vermont town called First Sister. The people around Billy shape him in different ways, from the ‘bald-headed owl-fucker’ school psychiatrists who teach that homosexuality is a curable perversion to the smart and heroic Mrs Hadley who teaches the acceptance without judgement that Billy grows to epitomise. There is also the inscrutable bully Kittredge, who will plant a hook in Billy’s brain that lasts a very long time, Elaine, with whom friendship will outlast sex, and of course the amazing Miss Frost, who both influences those around her and also acts as a litmus test of others’ character.

Most of the book describes Billy’s school years; the next part, describing university and career, is shorter; and a large part of the remainder is devoted to revisiting several of Billy’s friends or lovers as they die of AIDS in the eighties. It’s tragic and difficult to read at times. After that, the nice wrap-up at the end (where Billy’s life comes full circle and he is able to do for others as they did for him as a child – including some capital smack-downs) seems almost too neat and tidy and happy.

What it’s like to read

It’s conversational and engrossing. I read it in three sittings. I admired the characters Irving wanted us to admire, pitied the ones he wanted us to pity and shook my head at the ones who insisted on continuing a life of hatred and denial. I laughed at the jokes, cried at the tragedy and marvelled at how far we’ve come (or not) in societal acceptance of LGBTQ issues in sixty years.

All very interesting. But this book isn’t for me what Great Expectations or Giovanni’s Room was for Billy. It doesn’t speak to me personally. Billy’s life is dominated by classical drama and literature but I’m unfamiliar with the vast majority of all the Ibsen, Dickens, Flaubert, Shakespeare and so on that feature in the plot, hence I’m a mere observer to someone else’s interests. And the world of homosexuality in the seventies is pretty remote from my own experience, so while I appreciate the window into Billy’s life, I’m not sure it’s going to make a lasting mark.

There’s a passage in the book, about page 50 in my edition, that is the key to some of our differences:

As for the books my mother and grandmother brought home from the First Sister Public Library, they were (at best) adventure novels: sea-faring stories, usually with pirates, or Zane Grey Westerns; worst of all were the highly unlikely science-fiction novels, or the equally implausible futuristic tales.

Couldn’t my mom and Nana Victoria see for themselves that I was both mystified and frightened by life on Earth? I had no need of stimulation from distant galaxies and unknown planets. And the present gripped me with sufficient incomprehension, not to mention the daily terror of being misunderstood; even to contemplate the future was nightmarishly unwelcome.

Billy is fascinated by human interaction – ‘crushes on the wrong people’, for example – and hence seeks it out in his literature so he can try and understand things better. I, on the other hand, feel that because there are so many crazy different people absolutely everywhere in real life, why bother spending your free time around people like them, too? In One Person shows us that life can suck, that it can get better, that there can be unfair and terrible things that happen to good people, that there are quiet heroes, that there are bigots and bullies, that times can change, that families can be complex, and so on. But I already knew that – I think.

Of course – maybe I knew it because I read it in some other great work of literature.

Whoever designed the cover of my copy should be shot

Why take a strong, courageous tragicomedy and choose to illustrate it with a wistful, nostalgic image? Why does it feature a pre-pubescent boy, when our protagonist’s main story begins at thirteen? Why abandon capital letters for the title? Why does only the second I in Irving get a dot? Why put two major plot spoilers in the back cover blurb? And why let a vacation student do the photoshopped glow around the lettering?

It can be done better. Other publishers have shown it is possible.


This book was mostly read on the Sydney-Newcastle train.


One response to “John Irving: In One Person

  1. Thanks for this, I love John Irving. I agree though, that cover reads chick lit to me and probably doesn’t do the book justice. Isn’t it funny how our opinions of what other people read and cloud our own thoughts?

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