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TBTS Reviews: In One Person and Tales of the City

August 28, 2012

When you pick up a John Irving novel, you know you’re going to see a few things. Wrestling. Bears. The picturesque Northeast. Irving’s last novel, Last Night in Twisted River, was described by one critic this way: if you like John Irving, it’s everything you like about John Irving, and if you hate John Irving, it’s everything you hate about John Irving. Irving is comfortable with his themes, perhaps too comfortable for some. Perhaps Irving took this kind of criticism personally, because In One Person, Irving’s newest, is decidedly not another iteration of the formula that made him famous. Yes, the novel is in large part set in the beautiful Northeast, and yes, there is a lot – and I mean a lot – of wrestling, but early on, you know Irving has decided to stretch quite a bit farther than usual.

Bill Abbott, the protagonist and narrator of In One Person, is a bisexual man coming of age in the sixties. The theme of identity – as a sexual being and as a human being – is strong in this novel, and Abbott, as a narrator, is presented as a thoughtful examiner of himself and those around him. Bill falls in love with all the wrong people: the town librarian, Miss Frost, who turns out to have a secret as big as his own; the beautiful and confident Jacques Kittredge, his sometime friend and sometime tormentor; his best friend and lifelong companion Elaine. As Bill describes his life journey – a journey which takes him far and wide in the world – the reader feels the chill of things to come over Bill’s memories, and it becomes readily apparent where the story is going, even when the events that overshadow Bill’s life remain years off – directly into the heart of the AIDS epidemic.

For those of us old enough to remember the worst years of AIDS, before AZT and drug cocktails and medicine’s ability to forestall the onset of the syndrome, In One Person becomes a chilling, heartbreaking, deeply personal view of the human toll of that most dreaded disease most of us have never had. Irving saves the tragedy for the last quarter of the book, but when he sets it loose he spares nothing. He goes into excruciating, though necessary, detail with respect to the effects of the disease itself, and spares us nothing when so many of Bill’s friends begin dying from it. At the end, we are left emotionally exhausted, as Irving doubtless intends. But every tragedy passes, and so by the end, when medicine has reached if not a triumph at least an effective treatment, Bill remains standing, HIV-negative, now a teacher able to be something of a role model for the newest generation of gay, lesbian, bisexual and transgendered youth.

In One Person is not Irving’s greatest work. At times, it feels like the author’s hand lies too heavy, and at times it feels as though it’s just too much. But I cannot call In One Person a failure. I heard someone describe this book as a tough “hand-sell”, a bookseller’s term for persuading a customer to give an unfamiliar book a try. Indeed it is, and perhaps even those who love John Irving may find this novel a bit too hard to take. But for those who are receptive, for those who wish to understand human desire or the cost of the twentieth century’s most terrifying disease, In One Person is a worthwhile, even wonderful book.

At the same time as I read In One Person, I was reading a decidedly different view of gay culture, or at least of the culture of what was, then and now, America’s most gay-friendly city, San Francisco. Armistead Maupin’s Tales of the City books have been in print for around thirty-five years, still a going concern with the recent publication of the latest installment, Mary Ann in Autumn, and – this fact still amazes me – were originally published in the San Francisco Chronicle as a serial. Served up in brief bite-sized chapters – an artifact of their original format – Tales of the City and More Tales of the City are lighthearted, freewheeling novels that are a hell of a lot of fun to read. Featuring an outlandish ensemble cast and a wide variety of situations both realistic and absurd, Tales of the City feels like a window on another time, happier, and – though it may seem strange to say about stories so obsessed with sex – more innocent. Maupin handles his subject with such loving care that a reader cannot help but be caught up in the lives and loves of the inhabitants of 28 Barbary Lane, the apartment house that serves as the hub of the story. His characters – gay, straight, and on the fence – are well-realized, living beings, people you want to love, even the difficult ones, even the ones you sometimes want to slap around for being too shallow or too blind to see what’s in front of them. He educates without being didactic, he enlightens without pretense. In his hands, popular fiction is able to do far more than it should, and it’s hard not to want the next book in your hands right now. (Believe me, I’d like to be reviewing all eight at once!)

Maupin’s great gift is his breezy, addictive style, full of snappy, hilarious dialogue that would make Oscar Wilde slap his forehead in astonished joy. Few writers can pull off dialogue the way Maupin can – Elmore Leonard, David Foster Wallace, perhaps Nick Hornby, but not many beyond them. His comic timing is impeccable, even vaudevillian. Though the stories are so steeped in the culture of the 1970s, they somehow transcend their polyester, double-knit decade and still resonate today, even though a present-day reader cannot help but know that the carefree, promiscuous world they inhabit is about to come to a tragic end. To read Tales of the City today is to glimpse a kind of Eden before the fall, and if you have any empathy at all, to wish its inhabitants had been spared what Irving describes so well in In One Person.

In Brief: New in paperback this month is If Jack’s In Love by Stephen Wetta, reviewed in this column last year, and to whom I offer a belated apology for saying he looked like Tom Waits playing Doctor Who – I suppose I was feeling punchy that day. Available again after years out of print is Robert Silverberg’s science fantasy masterpiece Lord Valentine’s Castle. The excellent Jonathan Tropper has a new novel, One Last Thing Before I Go, out now in hardcover from Dutton. Forthcoming from Harper next month, and destined to be reviewed in this space, is Michael Chabon’s Telegraph Avenue (preview: my God, it’s wonderful.)

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