The first time I heard the word dyke, I was in high school carpooling with two girls I hated who hated me. I didn’t know the definition but I assumed it had something to do with the two girls walking on the sidewalk with their arms wrapped around each other and their hands tucked in one another’s pockets. To be honest, the very idea of homosexuality never occurred to me because I never thought about heterosexuality. I was an extremely shy, inexperienced girl who wanted to keep it that way. But looking at those girls, I thought, huh? Ok, what do I care what they’re doing? This book explores who cares what other people are doing and with whom.
In One Person tells the story of a bisexual man who is open to relationships with men, women, and transexuals (the women he loved called themselves transexuals and so he defers to their terms and not the contemporary term—transgender). He grows up in a small town in Vermont with a conservative mother and a grandfather who plays women’s roles in the town’s plays. He has “dangerous crushes” or rather, crushes on the wrong people. He becomes good friends with the town librarian, a transexual who guides his reading and encourages his writing. The story begins in the 1940s and ends in 2011. We move through the scope of gay bashing, riots, politics, and rights.
I saw John Irving at Herbst Theatre last month. I’ve read 9 of his books and couldn’t wait to hear him speak. He was in conversation with Michael Krasny. Watching him onstage, I felt the presence of The Great American Writer. Don’t get me wrong, I love many American authors, but they don’t have the presence that I imagine Mark Twain to have. That wit, that slow cadence to his speech, his quiet presence. He was wonderful, funny, and spoke largely about his craft. He’s a bit older than me and so he grew up in a different academic era. He expressed his disappointment that many interviewers focus on the similarities of the book to his life. Twenty years ago no one asked him what his political leanings were when they interviewed him. Nor did they ask him about his personal life. Now the questions focus on his actual life and family instead of on the story.
This book is being called “His most political novel since The Cider House Rules and A Prayer for Owen Meany.” And while I agree that this book does explore the history of gay rights, I wouldn’t classify it as a political novel. Perhaps there is an agenda, that the LGBTQ community deserves equal rights, but I don’t feel like John Irving is guiding my emotions. Because to me, having an agenda almost cheapens this novel. It’s a story about a bisexual man who has crushes on the wrong people (and they aren’t wrong because they are men, but because one is a much older librarian and the other a cruel classmate). His novel is filled with both likeable and detestable characters. His narrator finds support with his father-in-law, grandfather, uncle, speech therapist, and the high school wrestling coach. Many of the gay boys in Billy’s high school attempt to hide and blend in with 1950s heterosexual society. It’s 2011 by the end of the novel and there are gay boys living openly in the same high school that he attended along with support groups and an anti-bully campaign.
People just want to be accepted, by their families, their friends, their colleagues, their lovers, and society. Billy wants to be accepted by his mother but she fears he will be like his father (who left her to be with a man). In school he wants to be accepted by the wrestling star who makes homophobic comments but later admires Billy for having sexual relations with the middle-aged transsexual librarian. Billy goes through a number of lovers, each time hoping they will be the right match. But the men suspect he’s not man enough to be 100% gay while the women fear he will leave them for men. He lives through the AIDS epidemic and feels guilt because he survives it.
Self-definitions change with the people in question and with time. John Irving follows this, from the former wrestling librarian in the 1950s to the boy transitioning to a girl in 2011. The librarian does not want to be classified as anything beyond woman, even though she retains her penis. The boy making the change is taking hormones and having an operation. He is identified as transgender for the time being but will be a girl. The pronoun game is tricky here, one that most San Franciscans play on a daily basis with so many family and friends. Do you refer to your friend as “he” when you are telling a story about said friend when he is dressed as a boy? Obviously you refer to your friend as “she” when she is dressed as a woman. Does your friend identify as a tranny or a draq queen? John Irving has all the tact and compassion that one wants from a human being. He switches pronouns effortlessly, respecting his characters and their identities. For that reason alone, this book is a good read. The librarian is referred to as a woman by Billy’s family but since they share a history with her, they refer to her as him, when he was a student at the all boys school.
Billy loves Miss Frost before he knows “what” she is (Irving, 179). When he discovers that she used to be a boy, he gets angry that she kept this secret from him, and tells her that she is a transsexual. She responds “My dear boy, please don’t put a label on me–don’t make me a category before you get to know me!” (Irving, 198). He realizes that his feelings for her have not changed, regardless of what category or label describes her. Billy always refers to Miss Frost as a woman, and most of the time by Billy’s family. The only time they refer to her male past is when addressing her directly, because they knew her when she was a boy.
The front of a cover is a photograph of the back of a man putting on a bra. I don’t think I ever would have picked up on the fact that the back and hands belong to a man. John Irving said he chose this photo because it takes a while to realize that the back is too broad and the fingers and wrists, while delicate, are a bit large for a woman.
In One Person is an amazing read, filled with sub-plots to describe each minor character. He covers roughly 60-70 years and yet you never grow tired of his writing. In fact, you want more. And his pronoun usage is wonderful to admire.