Can any book by John Irving surpass his 1989 novel ‘A Prayer for Owen Meany’? I don’t often participate in surveys for ‘best this or that’. A favourite book shifts with time and some books resonate for a while but then fade. The only time I did vote for my favourite book, though, was in 1999 when asked to vote for the best book of the Twentieth Century. I voted for ‘A Prayer for Owen Meany’.
I am a big John Irving fan. Owen Meany was the third of his novels I read and I have caught up with most of his back catalogue but, until nothing came close in my affections until ‘In One Person’.
I love the sweep and scope of Irving’s novels but, more than that, he is writer of great humanity; he presents people with their differences or vulnerabilities and defies us to judge them harshly. The story is told by Billy Abbott, a bisexual writer, looking back on half a century. His coming to terms with his sexuality at the edge of a New England private school is movingly told as are his experiences of the 80s and the AIDS epidemic. His wider family includes those, like his mother, who look at him and find him wanting and those, like his grandfather and the town librarian, who look beyond the obvious to the person inside.
John Irving involves his hinterland here: New England; wrestling teams; school setting; outsiders. Once more, we have a story which poses two fundamental questions: who are you? and ‘how do you fit in?
I bought the hardback version (John Irving is worth it) because I couldn’t wait for the paperback but, having seen the cover, I much prefer the paperback design.
I am going to avoid any conversation which insists I choose between ‘A Prayer of Owen Meany’ and ‘In One Person’. The decision cannot be made!
John Irving novels are part of my hinterland. What’s in yours?