Can a few moments of moving emotional realism salvage a book entirely lacking in well-developed characters? John Irving’s 13th novel, In One Person (Simon & Schuster, 448 pp., $28.00), features an improbable plot and a basic misunderstanding of bisexuality. And yet it manages to evoke, at times, the struggles of gay and bisexual people in the second half of the 20th century in a manner that is comprehensible to Mr. Irving’s mass-market audience.
Probably inspired by Charles Dickens (who is mentioned in the novel’s first five pages), Mr. Irving crams so much biographical information into the early sections of his book that the reader, overwhelmed, yearns for a foothold. Dickens’s method of information-flooding worked for him because his characters’ situations were all either widely relatable or explicitly comical. In One Person concerns itself with the coming-of-age of a man whose telling of his life is both unrecognizable and so dirge-like as to grant little pleasure, or understanding of the world.
Young William is bisexual, an adjective that Mr. Irving apparently takes to mean “polymorphously perverse but with a particular interest in transsexuals.” William’s first-person narrative rambles through a New England prep-school idyll, where, not surprisingly, he comes in contact with a few of Mr. Irving’s stock-in-trade impossibly weird characters. His worldview is molded by a cross-dressing grandfather as well as a mysteriously alluring librarian who recommends books about forbidden love (Madame Bovary, et al) while guarding a secret of her own. (No points for guessing what that secret might be.)