34 years after 'Garp,' John Irving takes on sexual tolerance again

John Irving says his latest novel, In One Person, is "more realistic" than The World  According to Garp.
John Irving says his latest novel, In One Person, is "more realistic" than The World According to Garp. dapd

Reviewers have made much of the connection between John Irving's National Book Award-winning fourth novel, The World According to Garp, and his latest (and 13th), In One Person. Leave it to Irving to nail the key difference between the two.

"Garp is a more radical novel than In One Person; the satire is broad, the situation extreme," he writes in a recent email interview. "In One Person is a more realistic novel: A young bisexual man falls in love with an older transgender woman. The bi guy is the main character, but two transgender women are the heroes of this novel."

Irving says that in 1978, when he finished Garp, he thought he was "done with the subject of our intolerance for sexual differences." But 34 years later, In One Person could hardly be more timely.

Like all of Irving's work, In One Person is suffused with humor, bite, raw sexuality and an overarching humanity, covering half a century in the life of a character named Billy. Irving, 70, says that "Billy is not me," but he is "my imagination of what I might have been if I'd acted on all my earliest impulses as a young teenager."

"When I was a boy, I was confusingly attracted to just about everyone; in lieu of having much in the way of actual sex — this was the '50s — I imagined having sex all the time, with a disturbing variety of people," he says.

"I was attracted to my friends' mothers, to girls my own age, and — at the all-boys' school I attended, where I was on the wrestling team — to certain older boys among my teammates. Easily two-thirds of my sexual fantasies frightened me."

He says he was terrified of being gay. "It turned out that I liked girls, but the memory of my attractions to the 'wrong' people never left me. The impulse to bisexuality was very strong; my earliest sexual experiences — more important, my earliest sexual imaginings — taught me that sexual desire is mutable."

With regard to tolerance or lack thereof, Irving says, "I think our sympathy for others comes, in part, from our ability to remember our feelings."

The "just say no" mentality with regard to sex is "a form of senility," he says. "Those adults who are always telling children and young adults to abstain from doing everything — well, they must have never had a childhood or adolescence (or they've conveniently forgotten what they were like when they were young)."