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Sex! Incest! AIDS! Suicide! Promiscuity! –It’s a new John Irving novel, folks

‘In Another Person’ is another major offering from the pen of this remarkable writer
/ 03:52 AM June 23, 2013

Leading American novelist John Irving blew into town in January 2011 and the Inquirer gals went gaga over him.

He is now a senior citizen (born in 1942) but apparently still handsome and sexy, going by his flattering photo on Page 1 of this newspaper in the Jan. 11 issue that year. (Less flattering is the photo on his latest book, where he looks gaunt and shows his age.)

The staffers discussed his novels with enthusiasm and knowledgeability, and posed for souvenir photos. Irving informed them that he was at work on another novel and he was writing it while in this country (nine hours everyday).

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Sexual deviation

That could only have been his latest, “In Another Person,” published last year in a hardbound edition and just out in paperback (Simon & Schuster, 514 pages). The title is from a quote by Shakespeare in “Richard II”: “Thus play I in one person many people/And none contented.”

From the opening paragraph, the author hooks the reader with this sentence: “We are formed by what we desire.”

Since his wildly successful “The World According to Garp” in 1979, Irving has been known for his incursions into sexual deviation. And here he goes to town with what the critics call his penchant for sexual “peculiarities” and “eccentricities.”

What a novel! Here we have homosexuality, bisexuality, lesbianism, incest, abortions, AIDS cases, cross-dressing, promiscuity, suicides and hormone implants. Some passages read like soft porn, and a few readers may be turned off. But it is Irving’s immense gift as a storyteller and his serious intentions that save the day.

 

First-person narrative

The protagonist is the narrator, Billy Dean (later Billy Abbott) and it is the first time, I think, that the novelist uses the first-person narrative. There are many similarities between the author and his creation. Both are the same age (nearing 70 at the end of the book), are wrestlers, acclaimed novelists whose books are “sexually explicit,” studied in Vienna, speak German, have European publishers, and so on.

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In short, John Irving is Billy Abbott in the same way that Gustave Flaubert is Madame Bovary (“Madame Bovary c’est moi!”).

The big difference is that Irving is heterosexual (married twice and with four children, all male), while Abbott is bisexual. And one cannot help feeling that if Irving had grown up bisexual, he would be just like his character.

Growing up in a small town in New England (just like his creator), Billy Abbott realizes at an early age that he is bisexual. He is attracted to his stepfather Richard Abbott and to Kittredge, a “devastatingly handsome” classmate who is a top wrestler.

And, at the age of 17, he causes a scandal in the town when he engages in “non-penetrating sex” with the librarian Miss Frost, a much older person.

Memorable characters

Irving’s gallery of memorable characters is present here in full force. Many are not what they seem, and the twists and turns are worthy of an Agatha Christie mystery. We follow Billy’s odyssey from New England to New York, Amsterdam, Spain, and back to the US.

Tragedy is always present in a John Irving novel (along with comedy); and here we have more than a share of deaths. In affecting detail, the author recreates the AIDS epidemic in New York during the 1980s. And one by one, the narrator’s lovers and friends die of the disease.

It would all be quite depressing, really, except that Irving always manages to come up with an upbeat, unsentimental ending.

“In One Person” is another major offering from the pen of this remarkable writer.

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TAGS: “In Another Person”, Arts & Books, Book, Book Review, John Irving, Literature
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