Last updated: May 26, 2012 12:12 am

Grand masquerade

By turns introspective and jocular, a writer in his sixties recalls his struggle with bisexuality, success as a novelist and belated turn to political activism

In One Person, by John Irving, Atlantic RRP£20, 400 pages


At the centre of John Irving’s new novel is Billy Abbott, a writer in his late sixties. By turns introspective and jocular, he tells the story of his life – from his childhood in New England and struggle with “the confusing aspects” of his bisexuality, to his successful career as a novelist and his belated turn to political activism.

Throughout, he draws parallels between art and desire, associating his nascent literary ambitions with adolescent “crushes on the wrong people” (such as a local transsexual wrestler with perky breasts). The message of his story is that human sexuality is a grand “masquerade” all the better for its colourful variety.

In the end, all this amounts to the sort of big-hearted celebration of difference that Irving has long been known for. But he has rarely written with the gorgeous poise and control he musters here – and in any case, as one of Billy’s own admirers puts it, “pleas for tolerance never grow tiresome”.

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