The cover of John Irving's new novel, In One Person (Simon & Schuster, $28), is an evolving mystery. At first glance, the smooth skin and long fingers reaching around to unhook a bra apparently belong to a female body. As Irving's bisexual protagonist (the author's first) tells his story, however, the reader second-guesses that female body. Is it a man? A transgender man? A transgender woman? Is the person taking the bra off or putting it on?
As you've come to expect from Irving, Person contains an entire lifetime of events, and it doesn't unfold chronologically. William Abbott, a bisexual man in his 70s, narrates pretty much every event in his life—his speech-therapy sessions, his experiences with a crossdressing grandfather playing female roles onstage, his continuous search for an absent father, his struggles with "having crushes on the wrong people" (like, say, his stepfather).
Reading an Irving book is like grocery shopping. He piles as many damn things into your cart as soon as possible and then slowly unearths each item at checkout. In the beginning of his books, Irving introduces massive handfuls of characters, themes, and important phrases, and then lets the reader unpack those details with "Aha!" moments at the end of the novel (e.g., Yes! The armadillo thing! I remember!). This process works for A Prayer for Owen Meany; it doesn't work as well here. Irving tries to tell too many stories. The reader gets lost in the infinite details of Abbott's peers, relatives, teachers, friends, lovers, and new cities.
But Abbott's story is unique and powerful, not to mention hilarious. Duplicity is the running joke. Irving inserts as many examples of duality into the story as he can: men playing women onstage, women playing men onstage, individuals playing two roles onstage, characters with two careers, adults who are both parents and faculty members. Most characters also reveal varying degrees of dueling sexuality. After a while, the examples become downright silly. (Really? A queer man dresses as a woman and performs his/her life story onstage about both feigning straightness in the army and meeting his queer partner, Bovary, who was reading Madame Bovary at their first encounter? Calm down, Irving.)
Abbott's story, though, is deeply relevant to the ongoing gay marriage debate. He describes the double-edged sexual sword of society from the 1940s onward; he witnesses folks make exceptions for heterosexual acts (like knocking someone up) but not for homosexual conduct (like two consenting same-sex adults having sex). Irving's fictional characters get drawn into the AIDS epidemic; Abbott describes it happening around him as "that quickly passing illusion when the play suddenly seemed real." The characters in Person are innately realistic, despite the ridiculous layering of story lines.
Perhaps the most endearing aspect of Person is the way it feels like a lifelong coming-of-age novel. Abbott spends 70 years figuring out where he fits in. He's not straight, but he's not gay. He's not a teacher, but he's not a writer. He's not sure which city feels like home. He's a perfect protagonist for Irving, the king of literary double meanings, who adores thinking of nontraditional ways to think about words. "I just love it when certain people feel free to tell writers what the correct words are," Abbott says in Person. At times, Irving goes so far as to contradict his own techniques and has fun with characters who don't appreciate multiple or nontraditional definitions. "When I hear the same people use impact as a verb," Abbott says, "I want to throw up!"