Sunday, February 17, 2013

In One Person by John Irving

A bisexual writer in his late sixties tells his life story in John Irving's latest novel, In One Person. Billy Abbott grew up in a small town in Vermont, where his mother and stepfather met through their involvement in an amateur theatrical society. Billy's grandfather was also onstage; he was famous for taking female roles.

Transgender characters are plentiful, since Billy had significant relationships with at least six, starting with his grandfather. Even so, the 1950s weren't an easy time for a boy to be queer. Billy escaped to New York City as soon as he left high school. In 1963, Billy was 21 and had immersed himself in the gay scene there for two years.

"It wasn't that I was no longer attracted to women; I was attracted to them. But to give in to my attractions to women struck me as a kind of going back to being the repressed gay boy I'd been. Not to mention the fact that, at the time, my gay friends and lovers all believed that anyone calling himself a bisexual man was really just a gay guy with one foot in the closet.

[...] Even at such a young age, I must have sensed that bisexual men were not trusted; perhaps we never will be, but we certainly weren't trusted then.

[...] I was never ashamed of being attracted to women, but once I'd had gay lovers -- and, in New York, I had an ever-increasing number of gay friends -- I quickly learned that being attracted to women made me distrusted and suspected, or even feared, by other gays."

Are we a product of our biology? Or of our upbringing? Billy believes it was his desires that shaped him. The book has some somber stretches, especially when Billy recounts the early part of the AIDs epidemic in the 1980s. Irving lightens the mood with occasional quips: "There's one thing I'm glad I'm too old for: thongs."

John Benjamin Hickey's conversational tone works well in Simon & Schuster's audiobook edition [16.5 hours].

Audiobook listen-alike: Canada (Richard Ford) also looks back on an unusual boyhood in the mid-20th century, and has a similarly relaxed storytelling pace.

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