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Originally published Sunday, May 13, 2012 at 5:00 AM

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Book review

'In One Person': John Irving's novel of desire, two ways

Novelist John Irving's new book, "In One Person," tells the story of Billy Abbott, a man whose bisexuality defines and complicates his lifelong relationships. Irving reads Thursday at Town Hall Seattle.

Special to The Seattle Times

Author appearance

John Irving

The author of "In One Person" will read at 7 p.m. Thursday at Town Hall Seattle. Free, no tickets or reservations required. Sponsored by the Seattle Public Library (206-386-4636 or
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'In One Person'

by John Irving

Simon & Schuster, 441 pp., $28,

In many ways Billy Abbott is the prototypical misfit of an American coming-of-age novel: He hates his parents, he finds little in common with his peers, and he spends much of his waking hours consumed by lust.

The twist in this affecting story of Billy's life journey is that his lust is directed at both females and males. "We are formed by what we desire," Billy declares early on in John Irving's 13th novel, "In One Person," and although sexual desire in its many and varied permutations is thoroughly explored, it is the humanity of the characters that shines through at the end.

Billy lives in a small town in Vermont in the late 1950s and attends a prep school called Favorite River Academy. Theater is a big part of his family's life: his mother is the stage prompter in a local theater company and his stepfather, Richard Abbott, is an actor and the school's drama teacher. This presents a lively tableau for the drama on and offstage and a healthy dose of Shakespeare, Ibsen and other masters. The book's title comes from a line in "Richard II": "Thus play I in one person many people,/And none contented."

Two-thirds of the novel is about Billy's schoolboy years and his discovery of who he is sexually. Ever earnest and curious, he is continually having "crushes on the wrong people" and his bisexuality makes him even more of an outsider: "... my bisexuality meant I would be categorized as more unreliable than usual by straight women, while at the same time (and for the same reasons) I would never be entirely trusted by gay men." While he inevitably encounters bullies and bigots, he is fortunate to have in his life loving and understanding adults and his best friend, Elaine. They allow him his confusion without judgment or ridicule.

The last third of the book focuses on the onset of the AIDS epidemic as Billy, now a successful novelist in his 30s, tends to a number of friends who are dying gruesome deaths. The account serves as a harsh reminder of those terrible — and still shocking — years when young gay men were dying by the thousands.

Author of such popular modern classics as "The World According to Garp," and "Cider House Rules," Irving is a gifted and intuitive story teller. His narrative for this novel is tightly written with an appealing forward momentum and deft comedic touch. (Family scenes reminded me several times of Frank Capra's madcap film classic, "You Can't Take It with You.") His technique of looping back to the past has a pleasing synchronicity.

Irving's characters are most memorable. It feels reductive to mention some of them — lest they seem ridiculous: Billy's cross-dressing grandfather; his father, an "old queen" who lives in Madrid, Spain; and one of the loves of his life, a transsexual librarian who was once his school's star wrestler. In Irving's experienced hands, however, they are presented with respect and affection, and never seem less than human.

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