By Benjamin Svetkey
Updated May 16, 2012 at 04:00 AM EDT

What is it with John Irving and transsexuals? Roberta Muldoon, the ex-football player in The World According to Garp, was his most famous transgender creation, but there have been scads of others, such as the trans serial killer in A Son of the Circus and the female-impersonating actor in A Widow for One Year. And now, with In One Person, Irving’s 13th novel, the 70-year-old author is flinging open the armoire doors and letting all the plus-size gowns fly.

The book takes place, as many Irving novels do, at a New England prep school. It’s the early 1960s, and our narrator, Billy, is trying to figure out how to deal with his teenage “crushes on the wrong people.” He can’t ask his father for advice. His grandfather, though sweet, is mostly interested in dressing up for female roles in the local community theater’s productions. Billy’s got a few friends, like Elaine, the bookish daughter of one of the boarding school teachers, as well as a nemesis, Kittredge, a handsome but cruel wrestler who ends up becoming one of Billy’s wrong crushes. His wrongest of all, though, is on Miss Frost, the town’s statuesque librarian, who has man-size hands and a (pretty obvious) secret of her own.

Cross-dressing in Garp was at least partly played for laughs — Roberta Muldoon was a former linebacker, for goodness’ sake — but Irving’s tone this time is as earnest as a sermon. His prose, as always, is gorgeous, and Irving remains a master builder when it comes to constructing an epic plot filled with satisfying twists. But even Irving recognizes that a book about a bisexual man with a thing for guys dressed in women’s clothing isn’t going to be everybody’s cup of tea. In the final pages, Billy the grown-up novelist is confronted by a disgruntled reader. ”I’ve read all your books, and I know what you do — I mean, in your writing,” he says. ”You make all these sexual extremes seem normal…. You create these characters who are so sexually ‘different,’ as you might call them — or f— ed up, which is what I would call them — and then you expect us to sympathize with them, or feel sorry for them, or something.”

”Yes,” Billy answers, ”that’s more or less what I do.” B+