In the press notes for In One Person, John Irving seems sour about how his critical reputation has suffered since the publication of 1989’s A Prayer For Owen Meany. In an interview, he grouses about how his first five novels—including The World According To Garp, the book that has the best chance of outliving him—aren’t nearly as technically well-written as the eight that followed. And it’s easy to see where Irving might be tired of the way his new novels are greeted with respectful notices, but also the constant sense that his most relevant work lies behind him in the late ’70s and ’80s, when he was one of the two or three most important writers in America.
In One Person not only attempts to recapture some of that importance, as an explicitly political novel about the LGBT rights movement, it also continues a late-career resurgence, which included 2009’s Last Night In Twisted River, one of his finest books. (Not coincidentally, River is in part about an author attempting to live up to his glory days in the late ’70s and 1980s.)
National and global events over the last few decades have forced a new structure onto Irving’s favorite subject, the life and times of the Baby Boom. The generation’s story now necessarily concludes with dark trials and tragedies, but leaves the characters with a small but profound sense of hope. But where Twisted River took as its concluding backdrop American foreign policy after the terrorist attacks of September 11, 2001, In One Person dissects the cruel, arbitrary nature of the AIDS epidemic in the ’80s and ’90s. The last third of the book, which deals with the death and destruction wrought by the HIV virus, is among the best writing of Irving’s career. It just takes a while to get there.
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