A compelling novel of desire, secrecy and sexual identity, “In One Person” (Simon & Shuster, $28.00) is a story of unfulfilled love — tormented, funny and affecting — and an impassioned embrace of sexual differences. John Irving’s 13th novel features Billy Abbot, the bisexual narrator and main character of “In One Person,” who tells the tragicomic story (lasting more than half a century) of his life as a “sexual suspect,” a phrase first used by Irving in 1978 in his landmark novel of “terminal cases,” in “The World According to Garp,” his first international bestseller of nine. Worldwide, the Irving novel most often called “an American classic” is “A Prayer for Owen Meany” (1989), the portrayal of an enduring friendship at that time when the Vietnam War had its most divisive effect on the United States. In 2000, Irving won the Oscar for Best Adapted Screenplay for “The Cider House Rules,” a Lasse Hallström film that earned seven Academy Award nominations.
Irving’s novels are now translated into 35 languages, and his latest tackles the often unheard-from type: the bisexual. Irving has long been a champion for sexual freedom and “In One Person” is an intimate and unforgettable portrait of a bisexual man who is dedicated to making himself “worthwhile.”
“The bisexual men I have known were not shy, nor were they ‘conflicted,’” explained the 70-year-old author. “This is also true of the bisexual men I know now. I would say, too, that both my oldest and youngest bisexual male friends are among the most confident men I have ever known. Yet bisexual men — of my generation, especially — were generally distrusted. Their gay male friends thought of them as gay guys who were hedging their bets, or holding back — or keeping a part of themselves in the closet. To most straight men, the only part of a bisexual man that registers is the gay part; to many straight women, a bi guy is doubly untrustworthy — he could leave you for another woman or for a guy! The bisexual occupies what Edmund White calls ‘the interstitial — whatever lies between two familiar opposites.’ I can’t speculate on why other writers may choose to eschew the bisexual as a potential main character — especially as a point-of-view character (Billy Abbott is an outspoken first-person narrator). I just know that sexual misfits have always appealed to me; writers are outsiders — at least we’re supposed to be ‘detached.’ Well, I find sexual outsiders especially engaging. There is the gay brother in ‘The Hotel New Hampshire’; there are the gay twins (separated at birth) in ‘A Son of the Circus’; there are transsexual characters in ‘The World According to Garp’ and in ‘A Son of the Circus,’ and now again (this time, much more developed as characters) in ‘In One Person’. I like these people; they attract me, and I fear for their safety — I worry about who might hate them and wish them harm.”
The author’s choice to make libraries an important part of Billy Abbott’s development was based on his own childhood. “I love libraries,” said Irving. “I used to read in libraries, write in libraries, hide in libraries; libraries embrace a code of silence — that was just fine with me. I went to libraries to be left alone. So much of being a writer is seeking to be alone — actually, needing to be alone. Bookstores aren’t the same; they’re social places. I was a fairly antisocial kid; libraries were my cave.”