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Crushes On the Wrong People: A Review (2012)

Crushes On the Wrong People: A Review (2012)

Irving, John. (2012). In One Person: A Review. New York: Simon & Schuster.

©2012 by Dallas Denny

Source: Denny, Dallas. (2012, 28 May). Crushes on the wrong people: A review of John Irving’s In One Person. TG Forum.





 Crushes on the Wrong People

 A Review of John Irving’s In One Person

By Dallas Denny

 ** Spoiler Warning **
** Discussion of Plot and Characters Ensues **


TG Forum Version


Meet Billy Abbott. At age thirteen he finds himself in the public library of the little Vermont logging town of First Sister, smitten by the tall, broad-shouldered librarian. “In less than a minute of excited, secretive longing I decided to become a writer and to have sex with Miss Frost—not necessarily in that order.” (p. 1)

Miss Frost was but the first of Billy’s “crushes on the wrong people.” His sexual attractions are what most define him as he comes of age on the cusp of the 1960s.

The females in Billy’s family—his mother, who seems to like him less and less as he approaches manhood; her buxom, sexually repressed sister Muriel, and his dour grandmother Victoria—conspire to protect Billy (and themselves) by withholding information about the father he never knew and Miss Frost’s past. They are forever expressing doubts about Billy and his unfolding sexuality.

The men in Billy’s life are Muriel’s alcoholic husband, Bob, head of admissions at First Sister’s Favorite River Academy; his wonderful stepfather Richard, five years his wife’s junior, who marries Mary when Billy is 13; and grandfather Harry, co-owner of a lumber mill and actress in First Sister’s community theater in the evening. Harry portrays a female in virtually every play, to the delight of most of First Sister’s citizens and the disapproval of a few.

I loved watching him perform, but perhaps there were folks in First Sister, Vermont, who had rather limited imaginations; they knew Harry Marshall was a lumberman—they couldn’t accept him as a woman.

Indeed, I saw more than obvious displeasure and condemnation in the faces of our townfolks—I saw more than derision, worse than meanness. I saw hatred in a few of those faces. (p. 147).

When Billy tells Harry about his crushes on boys and men and his attraction to his girlfriend Elaine’s bra, the subject of this hatred comes up. “You know what I say, Bill,” responds Harry, “I say you can make-believe what you want,” (p. 147) and “I think you’ve noticed that rigidly conventional or ignorant people have no sense of humor about cross-dressers,” (p. 148).

If Miss Frost is Billy’s first and longest lasting crush, perhaps his strongest is to his classmate, wrestler Jacques Kittredge—a sexual fascination he shares with Elaine. Kittredge is a bully with a confident demeanor and a pretty face who torments not only Billy and Elaine, but Billy’s mother, who has become the prompter for the First River Academy Drama Club’s production of Shakespeare’s The Tempest. Kittredge is cast as Ferdinand and Elaine as his love interest Miranda:

“O most dear maid,” Ferdinand misspoke to Miranda in one of our rehearsals, when we were newly off-script.

“No, Jacques,” my mother said. “That would be ‘O most dear mistress,’ not maid.”

But Kittredge was acting—he was only pretending to flub the line, so that he could engage my mother in conversation. “I’m so sorry, Mrs. Abbott—it won’t happen again,” he said to her, then he blew the very next dialogue assigned him.

“Not this time, Jacques,” my mom told him. “It’s ‘No, precious creature’—not mistress.”

“I think I’m trying too hard to please you—I want you to like me, but I’m afraid you don’t, Mrs. Abbott,” Kittredge said to my mother. He was flirting with her, and she blushed.

“I do like you, Jacques—I certainly don’t not like you!” my mom blurted out, while Elaine (as Miranda) stood there seething; Elaine knew that Kittredge had used the hot word for my mom. (p. 73)

That’s Kittredge being sexual with an adult. He was far worse with Bill and Elaine.

Billy’s revelation of his crushes to Miss Frost, his grandfather Harry, Elaine, and his stepfather are met with understanding and sympathy. “There are no ‘wrong people’ to have crushes on, Bill,” Richard says. “You cannot will yourself to have, or not to have, a crush on someone.” (p. 29). Their responses help Billy come to terms with his crushes, even if they are directed at “the wrong people.” So, too, does Miss Frost’s revelation of her past when she beds a by-then 18-year-old Billy. Unfortunately, their assignation is discovered by Grandpa Harry, who has been sent to discover what everyone in the family already knew. Predictably, there are negative consequences for Miss Frost. Billy, however, is unrepentant.

As an adult, Bill has relationships with many men, the occasional woman, a transsexual woman named Donna, and, several times, Elaine. Not surprisingly, he has acted not only upon his crushes, but upon his desire to be a writer; he is a novelist of some renown. Also not surprisingly, his characters mirror his attractions by manifesting all sorts of sexual and gendered behaviors.

At age sixty-five, Bill finds himself once again in First Sister, teaching at Favorite River Academy. His ambivalence at taking the job is ended by Elaine’s mother and his stepfather Richard, who convince him to meet a student who turns out to be a male-to-female transsexual named Gee. At a rehearsal for Romeo and Juliet, which Bill is directing with Gee as Juliet, a distraught man in his 30s demands to see him. It’s Kittredge’s (unnamed in the manuscript) son, who demands to know just how Bill’s relationship with Miss Frost had informed his father’s life choices. When Bill says “I don’t know what happened to your father,” Kittredge’s son goes on the attack:

I don’t know you, I admit—I don’t have a clue what my father really was, either. But I’ve read all your books, and I know what you do—I mean, in your writing. You make all these sexual extremes seem normal—that’s what you do. Like Gee, that girl, or whatever she is—or what she’s becoming. You create these characters who are so sexually “different,” as you might call them—or “fucked up,” which is what I would call them—and then you expect us to sympathize with them, or feel sorry with them, or something. (p. 424)

“Yes,” Billy says, “that’s more or less what I do.”

That’s exactly what John Irving does, also. And more power to him.


I suspect many readers—and some —won’t quite get In One Person. They’ll look for and find most of Irving’s motifs—settings in New England and Vienna, a prep school, wrestling, and colorful and eccentric characters who push against societal limitations and restrictions on their behavior. And transsexuals. There are transsexuals, so some readers will say to themselves or in print, oh, this isn’t new material; this is self-indulgent; this is weak; this has all been said—but it hasn’t been said before, not as well or as thoroughly, not by John Irving and only rarely by others. In this, his 13th novel, Irving confronts head-on what he more obliquely addressed in his earlier twelve. Here sexual desire and transsexualism aren’t supporting characters, they take the twin leads.