Book review: In One Person

By David Hill

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In One Person by John Irving
Doubleday $39.99

Cover of In One Person by John Irving. Photo / Supplied
Cover of In One Person by John Irving. Photo / Supplied

Anything by John Irving is going to be memorable. And powerful. And provocative. So it is with his 13th novel, the story of five decades in the life of bisexual Billy.

Billy's parents are stalwarts of amateur theatre (his father being the company's leading female impersonator) and his own life is a sustained performance, sexually and socially.

"There are no wrong characters to have crushes on," he is told early in the book. Nor are there any crush barriers in his life (yes, crush barriers). Billy's hit-list starts with strapping Miss Frost from the Public Library, and moves on via Richard the Ibsen enthusiast, cousin Geraldine, the writer of scabrous marginalia, and a hairless-chested wrestler. Nor should we forget Elaine: Billy enjoys removing her bra almost as much as he enjoys wearing it.

So it's a romp. It's also a narrative of many losses, an elegy for faded youth and fading hopes. Billy's sexual burgeoning coincides with the arrival of Aids, so we get harrowing scenes of sickness and mortality.

Most of all, it's an immensely tolerant novel - which is not the same as permissive. Billy's progress and intermittent regress becomes an eloquent plea for generosity of spirit. At the same time, there's a strong moral core, grounded in love and forgiveness. The only people Irving condemns are the intolerant and bigoted, those who shrink others to a "category".

There's a technicolour cast of oddballs, misfits, joyous renegades, all of them the stuff of light farce and dark despair. Don't miss the follically-challenged owl-ravisher, or the Scandinavian with the saggy syntax.

Irving-ites will not be surprised to hear that wrestling sometimes takes a hold on the plot. So does theatre, especially in the forms of Shakespeare and Tennessee Williams. No surprise either that Billy's first on-stage role is as the androgynous sylph Ariel.

He reads omnivorously, starting as a 13-year-old with Fielding and the Brontes. Later, as he travels through Europe, he reads all of Madame Bovary aloud to his lover. Inevitably, he wants to become a writer and he does so, successfully, while friends strain to find themselves in his stories.

The sexual match commentaries can become repetitive. The flawlessly recollected dialogue can become protracted. You'll find yourself wondering if quite so many participants have to swap genders; the associated surgery and hormone treatment may make your eyes water.

A big story from a big writer. There's raunchy, rueful humour and lyrical yearnings. And there's celebration all the way - not so much a case of vive la difference as vivent les differences.

David Hill is a Taranaki writer.

- NZ Herald

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