In One Person by John Irving

I doubted a couple of times if it would happen.  But it did.  I managed to slog my way through John Irving’s In One Person.  It wasn’t easy…and not just because of the tendency to jump back and forth through time…which made “plot” an almost extraneous element, at least for me, and was annoying as hell.

But what bothered me the most…and I suppose, at the same time, kept me reading…was the treatment of the author’s main theme, which appears to be, at least for me, transsexual women.

Now I am not a book reviewer by trade, so I shall probably commit a major faux pas by giving away the plot…but I don’t really know that the novel has one.  It is mostly 448 pages of character development.  Well, at least some of the characters develop.  Some others we wish would develop, but seem to come up lacking.

If you plan to read the book, you may not wish to read further.  I will be giving away a lot that happens.  I hesitate to call it “the Plot”.

The narrator/star of the novel is William (Billy) Abbott, who will become a novelist during the timeline of the novel.  But at the beginning he is just a tween growing up in First Sister, Vermont, who has a mother, Mary Marshall Dean, and an absent father, William Francis Dean.  This causes stress in their relationship which lasts forever.  Apparently mom married a younger man when they were both too young, and their “romance” did not survive World War II.  Mary works at her father’s sawmill and is the prompter for the local theatrical company.  Billy has a grandfather, Harry Marshall, who is a member of the theatrical company, specializing in women’s roles, a disapproving grandmother named Nana Victoria, and an Aunt Muriel, who is married to Uncle Bob , who is the admissions director at Favorite River Academy…the local all-male prep school.  Bob drinks too much.  Muriel has been the leading female in many of the town’s plays…except when Harry gets that role.  The director of the theater is Harry’s partner, Norwegian lumberman, Nils Borkman, who produces plays he detests so that once every year or two, he can do an Ibsen play.

Into Billy’s world comes the new English teacher and Shakespeare expert at Favorite River, Richard Abbott.  Richard is just perfect for the theatrical company, which is lacking in leading man material.  Richard and Mary fall in love and eventually marry.  Billy develops a crush on Richard.

Richard discovers that Billy has no library card and can’t let that situation rest.  He upsets most of the Marshall clan, especially the women, by taking Billy to the town library, where he introduces her to the librarian, Miss Frost, who billy observes has broad shoulders, large hands and small breasts.  He is especially taken, as young boys are, with the breasts.  Miss Frost prepares him a reading list, a task she will continue for several years.

Billy also develops a crush on Miss Frost.  Miss Frost, the discerning reader already knows, is a transwoman.  Billy doesn’t know that.  All he knows is that he is developing crushes on “the wrong people.”  And that he is bisexual.

Richard, Mary and Billy move into campus housing, which means they get an apartment in the dorms.  Also living in faculty housing are the Hadley’s, who are the history teacher with no known first name, Martha Hadley who teaches music and counsels troubled students, and their daughter elaine, who is Billy’s age.  Elaine has to go to public school in Ezra Falls when Billy begins attending Favorite River.  Elaine will be Billy’s friend for life, sometime lover, fellow writer, confidant, antagonist, etc.

Elaine and Billy come close to having sex one time when they are teens, but they are both thinking about the school bully, Kittredge, a wrester who they both have crushes on.  Almost caught be a parent, Billy ends up with Elaine’s bra stuck in his pants. He will choose to start wearing it to bed.

Asked by to supply Billy with a book about crushes on the wrong people, which Billy has talked about with Ms. Hadley and Grandpa Harry, Miss Frost gives him Wuthering Heights, Jane Eyre, and Tom Jones…for a start.  Eventually she will give him James Baldwin’s Giovanni’s Room…which his mother will discover under his pillow along with Elaine’s bra, forever destroying their relationship.  That will happen on the evening Billy almost has sex with Miss Frost in the library basement.  They are interrupted by Harry…who the family women have sent to “rescue” Billy.  

Miss Frost loses her job.  Billy almost wins Kittredge’s respect…for doing such a disgusting thing.  It tuns out that Miss Frost, when she was Al Frost, was the Favorite River’s only undefeated wrester in history…and he dated Muriel when he was a classmate of Bob’s.  She was given the position of town librarian by Harry Marshall and Nils Borkman, the town’s largest employers.  But they couldn’t save her now.

Kittredge has sex with Elaine, she becomes pregnant, and is “sent away” to Europe to have an abortion, with Mrs. Kittredge, where she is changed forever.  

WHen Elaine returns, she is sent away to an all-girls academy.  Billy, Elaine and Kittredge eventually all graduate.  Billy goes to Europe with Atkins, the other gay boy at the school.  Atkins is extremely jealous, along with having other issues, especially becoming upset when Billy looks at women.  Billy is forced to read Madame Bovary to Tom over the course of the summer in Europe because Atkins doesn’t want Billy dreaming of Emma Bovary.

The Flaubert book is important because of the only story Billy has about his father.  It concerns the time Billy’s dad was in a ship latrine during stormy weather, one of the only sailors not seasick, where he meets another sailor in the latrine who is reading Madame Bovary while being tossed from toilet to toilet.

Upon returning to America, Billy’s dad reportedly met the same man on a Boston subway car…and then he was gone.

Except he wasn’t gone.  Later in the book we learn that Senor Bovary as he comes to be called, and Franny Dean became lifelong lovers.  Yes, Billy’s problems with his mother are partially because she married a gay man.

Over the years…and through the pages…we deal with Billy’s relationships with transwomen…which he seems to fetishize…and both men and women and are dragged through the consequences of the AIDs plague.  Billy is with Atkins when he dies, with another classmate, Delacourt, when he dies.  Both say they have seen Kittredge…and that she is beautiful.  What the fuck?

In a visit with Delacourt’s mother, Billy sees a photograph of Delacourt and Kittredge dressed in Mrs. Delacourt’s clothes and made up as women.  Delacourt grew up to be gay.  Kittredge grew up to be trans.

We do learn along the way that in an attempt to keep her sone from growing up gay, Mrs. Kittredge seduced him.

We discover later that Kittredge has died in Switzerland, “of natural causes”.  At the end of the book, we discover from his son that Kittredge had indeed had a sex change operation and had died of AIDS as well.

Nana Victoria dies.  Mary and Muriel die in a car crash.

Nils Borkman and his wife commit suicide in true Ibsen fashion.  Grandpa Harry follows suit.

Harry leaves the house to Billy.  Billy moves there to live.  Richard and Mrs. Hadley are living together at this point.  Bob is in a nursing home.  Elaine is living in Greenwich Village.  And just about everyone else is dead…even, we discover, Miss Frost…who was beaten to death in a bar fight near a Vermont Air Force base.

Only Bob receives an email from a Senor Bovary, telling Bob he should tell Billy to visit Madrid soon…and meet his father.  Billy travels there and finds Franny and Bovary to be thriving gay men in their 80s, with Franny headlining in drag at a Madrid gay bar, named Bovary’s.

And we learn that, back when Franny Dean was a student at Favorite River and manager of the wrestling team, Mary Marshall used to have him over to her house, where she loved to dress him in girl’s clothes.  Franny enjoyed her doing that.  That’s what they had in common.

And Elaine, who had been so changed by Mrs. Kittredge?  It turns out it was because Elaine discovered that Kittredge didn’t want to have sex with all the girls…he wanted to be the girls.

William Abbott eventual becomes an English teacher at Favorite River Academy, after it has become co-educational, like his step-father.  And he becomes the Shakespeare director…the first one with the balls to cast a Juliet who has balls…castling a transgirl at the school in the role.  And he protects her from the other students and outsiders (Kittredge’s son)…like Miss Frost protected him.

What goes around comes around.