A couple of decades ago, a group of Biblical scholars (I believe they were called The Jesus Council) got together to discuss the four books of the gospel in the New Testament. They concluded that each of the books had elements in common but that they weren’t necessarily derivative of each other, but rather from another, older text, one that had presumably been lost. They called the missing text “Q”. It represented the set of facts and stories that each of the gospel writers would have been familiar with and would have used as the basis for their own accounts (if I remember correctly, only three of the gospels relied heavily on Q while the gospel of John—or was it Luke?—varied a great deal). Anyway, I bring this up because if you were to create the “John Irving Council” (Garp Council, perhaps?) you could draw the same conclusion. The majority of John Irving’s novels have so many elements in common that it seems like a dozen retellings of the same person’s life, the life of Q.
Who is John Irving’s Q? Well, he’s likely the son of a single mother who has both mommy issues and daddy issues. His father may have been a war hero, but he’s not really sure and spends a fair bit of time wondering about it. He lives with his mother somewhere in New England. He probably is interested in wrestling as a teenager and aspires to be a writer. His first sexual experience is almost certainly with a somewhat masculine girl to whom he is not necessarily attracted but to whom he submits out of curiosity and fear. She will continue to influence his sexual development but will never be his idea of “girlfriend material.” She may be an inappropriate choice, perhaps because he sees her as a friend, or perhaps because she is related to him. Either way, he finds her sexually aggressive. There will be another woman whom he idealizes, even though things will probably not work out with her either. He will probably travel to Germany or Eastern Europe at some point. He may or may not encounter a bear.
Who is this person? Is it just a constant recreation of Garp, the character who shot John Irving to literary stardom? Or is it a version of Irving’s own life? I’ve always wondered.Sadly, whenever Mr. Irving talks about himself in interviews or memoirs, it’s mostly about his success in the movie business, which I find less interesting than finding out the identity of the hairy girl who saw him through puberty.
In some ways, In One Person is John Irving’s most revealing novel yet. Or at least it would be if the character of William Abbott, an aging novelist looking back on his life as a bisexual boy at a New England boarding school, were, in fact, John Irving. But he’s probably not. Mr. Irving is, after all, a fiction writer. But Bill Abbott could be Irving, or at least he could be the fictional version of the man who wrote The World According to Garp and Hotel New Hampshire. He is described as someone who writes novels that make sexual differences seem normal, who calls for sexual tolerance. Perhaps this is how John Irving would like to be described as well.