After finishing John Irving’s latest book, “In One Peron”, I was filled with great sadness. The sadness of saying goodbye. Typically, after finishing an Irving book the “goodbye” means having to live behind all the wonderful characters and the gripping story that accompanied me throughout the book. This time the “goodbye” has an entirely different meaning.
Irving is one of my favourite authors. Some of his books (most notably, “A Prayer for Owen Meany”) are the best novels I’ve ever read. However, his most recent books – “Until I Find You” (2005), “Last Night in Twisted River” (2009) and now “In One Person” (2012) – are a disappointment. Painful as it is to admit this to myself, Irving has lost his magical touch.
“In One Person” is the life story of Billy Dean, from his teenage years in the 1950s until he’s about 60. Billy grows up in the New England town of First Sister, Vermont, living on the campus of an all-boys boarding school. He never met his father, and his conservative, stern mother will not divulge any details about the man she fell in love with all those years ago. Other dominating characters in young Billy’s life are his grandfather (an amateur actor who prefers acting female roles), his stepfather Richard, and the local libraraian with the big hands, Miss Frost. It is his infatuation with Miss Frost that helps Billy discover his bisexuality. Billy is attracted not only to Miss Frost but also to Kitteredge, the leading member of the school’s wrestling team. Unlike the librarian, this attraction remains one-sided.
Aside from bears, almost all of Irving’s usual themes are present in “In One Person”: New England, boarding schools, wrestling and coaching, intra-family intimate ties, single motherhood, marital infidelities, Vienna, etc. (Perhaps the homosexuality theme of this novel supplies the “bears” theme from another angle…) But despite the familiar settings of Irving’s beloved novels, “In One Person” fails to rise to the test. The story is dull and the characters, despite their colourfulness, are too predictable. The frequent use of parentheses, an Irving technique to communicate directly with the reader, becomes very tiresome after the first few chapters. And even though by now we are all used to Irving’s explicit language, some parts of this book descend to new depths of profanity. A couple of times I imagined Irving as the kindergarten boy who says “bad words” because he enjoys watching the shocked expressions of the adults.
A couple of weeks ago, writer Philip Roth announced his retirement from writing. For the sake of preserving my fond memories of his novels it is with great sadness that I recommend for Irving to follow in Roth’s footsteps.