THERE'S A HILARIOUS graph on John Irving's Wikipedia page, a chart of all the themes that recur in his swollen novels. The list includes "wrestling," "bears," "Vienna," and "sexual variations"—you could almost take each element and patch together the ultimate Irving book: Wrestling Bears in Vienna While Being Seduced by a Significantly Older Woman, or something.

There is plenty of wrestling and a little bit of Vienna—no bears, though—in Irving's latest novel, In One Person, and quite a lot of "sexual variation." In some ways, it's Irving's most audacious work: the detailed sexual history of a bisexual man who comes of age in the late '50s and early '60s at a New England boarding school (another Irving mainstay). Billy Abbott's adolescence is marked by "crushes on the wrong people": on his best friend's mother, on a somewhat bullying fellow student, and on his own stepfather. It's his crush on the town's tall, imposing, small-breasted librarian that lingers with Billy the most—Miss Frost initiates him in both love and sex, and it seems less than spoiler-y to reveal there's more to her than meets the eye.

For such a mainstream, established novelist, it's good that Irving's being deliberately confrontational with In One Person, whose title comes from Richard II ("Thus play I in one person many people, and none contented"). He's addressing the civil rights issue of the moment—gay marriage—by navigating a bisexual man's gradual road to self-acceptance. The real meat of the book doesn't come until its last 100 pages, when the AIDS epidemic hits. That means In One Person flounders for the first 300, never quite seeming grounded in reality; Billy doesn't experience the kind of harsh discrimination and alienation I'd imagine a sexually confused kid would have suffered in the mid-20th century. He seems muddled and confused, and that's about it. That his grandfather performs community theater in drag without incident also beggars belief.

In One Person contains excellent passages, and Irving, as always, remains cheerfully vulgar and eminently readable. But in the shadow of his best work (1978's The World According to Garp, 1981's The Hotel New Hampshire, and 1985's The Cider House Rules), In One Person meanders, plotless, for long stretches. Irving seems to be aiming to be more provocative than memorable, and his tale of "sexual variation" is more of a drag than it should be.