John Irving remains very readable

Sunday , June 17, 2012 - 5:30 AM

David Martindale

IN ONE PERSON. By John Irving. Simon & Schuster ($28).

Even before you read his first marvelously crafted paragraph, you know what you're going to get when you pick up a John Irving novel.

The author of such masterworks as "The World According to Garp," "The Cider House Rules" and "A Prayer for Owen Meany" tends to revisit many signature themes and character types in his storytelling.

"In One Person," Irving's 13th novel, is no exception.

There's the writer protagonist who grows up as a fatherless child and attends an all-boys New England boarding school, where wrestling is a way of life and a metaphor for life.

Vienna will prove to be an eye-opening travel destination for our hero. Meanwhile, his family, friends and lovers over the course of his life will include eccentric sexual outsiders and misfits.

Alas, no bears in this outing, but that seems to be the only missing familiar element.

But the main attraction, the thing that makes Irving so repeatedly readable, is his way with words.

Few people write as elegantly and eloquently, as powerfully and poignantly, as John Irving. That's why he is an American treasure.

So even if "In One Person" isn't Irving's best novel, it's still an important and worthy one.

The book tells the story of Billy Abbott, a bisexual man who is both inspired and tormented by his "crushes on the wrong people."

Billy's first boyhood crush, one that proves to have a lasting impact on his life, is on Miss Frost, a "statuesque" librarian with manly hands and a mighty big secret. Another of Billy's early crushes, just as lasting but also the cause of much anguish, is on a handsome and bullying wrestling star in his school.

But what starts as a coming-of-age story ultimately morphs into something more ambitious.

Billy's story spans decades, from a time when alternative lifestyles were hushed up, like dirty little secrets, to the decade of AIDS, a period of suffering and death ("a world of epilogues," Billy calls it), to the present day, in which Irving suggests that people aren't quite as enlightened as they often profess to be.

"In One Person" is the author's impassioned plea for tolerance and open-mindedness at a time when sexual identity as a civil rights issue is still a hotly debated political matter.

As Miss Frost puts it, "Don't put a label on me --- don't make me a category before you get to know me."

That is the message that Irving felt compelled to share with the world at this time.

"Sexual misfits have always appealed to me (from a storytelling standpoint)," Irving says. "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. And I fear for their safety. I worry about who might hate them."

Meanwhile, the chapters in which Billy and his lifelong friend Elaine watch helplessly as old classmates, friends and lovers suffer agonizing AIDS-related deaths serve as a heartbreaking history lesson.

"It was difficult personally (to write about this chapter of American history)," Irving says. "I lived in New York City from '81 to '86. I was there at the start of the AIDS crisis. I lost friends, young and old, to that disease. I had no desire to revisit some of those memories."

But revisit them he does, in hauntingly vivid detail.

"There are subjects for fiction, the themes you choose, and then there are the obsessions that choose you," Irving says. "Wrestling is something I know. I competed as a wrestler for 20 years. I coached the sport till I was 47. Life in a New England boarding school and living as a student abroad in Vienna, these are things I know very well. I choose them because I have no end of detail in my memory bank.

"But the loss of childhood innocence, the absent parent and those sexual outsiders and misfits I am repeatedly attracted to in my fiction, I do not choose to write about those things. Those things obsess me. Those things choose me. You don't get to pick the nightmare that wakes you up at 4 a.m.

"That nightmare comes looking for you, again and again."

-- By David Martindale

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