Yes, there are bears, too, but not what you might expect.
In fact, this whole novel is not what you might expect. Fans — and attentive detractors — will easily fill their John Irving bingo cards with the author’s usual motifs and references to his own life, but it’s certainly not one of his ridiculous books, like “The Fourth Hand,” or even one of his tragically flawed ones, like “Last Night in Twisted River.” Instead, the sophisticated and garish elements of “In One Person” are laced together in an act of literary transvestism.
The story is told in retrospect by a man in his late 60s named Billy Abbott. He looks back across the decades to his adolescence in First Sister, Vt., the home of a mid-rate boys academy, where homophobia was practically the school motto. “We are formed by what we desire,” Billy announces, and what he desired followed none of the dorm rules.
As with many of Irving’s bestsellers, the kooky sex scenes here will steal the headlines, but this is a novel feverishly running its fingers down the spines of other books; it’s as packed with allusions to works of literature as Jeffrey Eugenides’s “The Marriage Plot.” Billy says in the opening paragraph, “I became a writer because I read a certain novel by Charles Dickens.” And like Dickens, Irving sets a stage filled with irresistible and sometimes irresistibly bizarre characters.
The first is an “austerely formal” town librarian named Miss Frost with hypnotizing breasts. She becomes one of the inappropriate objects of Billy’s desire and the guide to his literary tastes. Alarmed by the school physician, who claims that homosexual “afflictions” must be treated aggressively, Billy asks Miss Frost if she can recommend “any novels about young people who have . . . dangerous crushes.” She leads him to “Wuthering Heights,” “Jane Eyre,” “Tom Jones” and “Great Expectations,” hardly what the 13-year-old expected, but not as surprising as what she eventually reveals in the basement of the library. (Don’t ask, don’t tell!)
Meanwhile, Billy’s own family is full of more fantastic characters — and literature. His Grandpa Harry is a cross-dressing lumberman who grabs all the best female parts at the local theater. Harry’s Norwegian business partner is also the theater’s tyrannical director, who makes their patrons endure Ibsen as often as possible. And Billy’s handsome new stepfather has just been hired at the local prep school “to beat the boys silly with Shakespeare,” whose plays, of course, were once performed entirely by men and boys.
This wonderful first section of the novel shows what a ringmaster Irving can be. His looping chronology gives the impression of aimless digression only until we catch up and find him on the trail of some larger truth. The story swings confidently from the burlesque comedy of Billy’s dolled-up grandfather to the poignant anxiety of the boy’s sexual confusion. And it’s full of insights about classic theatre and novels, all gracefully integrated into Billy’s struggle to figure out what kind of person he is. Flaubert’s “Madame Bovary” makes him think hard about the costs of violating moral conventions; James Baldwin’s “Giovanni’s Room” opens up other doors. (Oblique references to Irving’s own novels are mercifully few and endearingly humble.)