ColumnRead a book, sustain your mind.
John Irving is usually pissed off about something and more often than not this is a good thing. After all, there is much to be pissed off about.
I’ve seen the author speak quite a few times, the first of which was in the early 1980s, when he was experiencing what amounted to pre-traumatic stress disorder about the nascent Reagan Administration. Predicting the advent of a new and undiluted form of greed and the muscle-bound bullying of the most fragile among us, Irving was angry in such a way that I would have been scared to stand next to him lest I suffer an errant blow. (He was and still is a stout and strong man—a wrestler’s wrestler). Not to be too dramatic (I was young and a bit star-struck at the time), but I recall an almost John Brown-like, call-to-arms fervor. Think “author does bully pulpit.”
The last time I saw Irving was about 30 years later. He was on his book tour to support 2009’s Last Night in Twisted River, and I was treated to one of his infamous diatribes about how nothing truly “great” has been written since Hardy, how Hemingway was and remains some sort of disgrace to the art form, and how all that matters in fiction is plot and that Queequeg’s coffin was nothing but “a flotation device.” (“Don’t you understand?! That’s its only reason for it being there!”) He seemed perturbed by the notion that anyone would disagree with him on these issues.
His rant came off as pompous and overbearing, and turned a lot of us off that evening. (A friend and Irving fan left vowing never to read “that pretentious ass” again.) But his arrogant tone was somehow bigger than our upset (he’s a powerful speaker, with a somewhat domineering air) and no one dared speak up to perhaps ask some obvious questions: “Should we assume, Sir, that you’re excluding yourself from the ‘nothing great has been written in the last century’ analysis?” (He was probably just trying to get a rise out of us in the first place; Irving counts 20th Century greats Günter Grass and Kurt Vonnegut to be among the “fathers” of his work.) Or maybe this: “When did you last read For Whom the Bell Tolls and what did you find ‘simple’ and ‘ad copy-like’ about that book?” Or something along the lines of: “Mr. Irving, about that coffin in Moby-Dick, can we surmise then that a bear is just a bear? A wrestler just a wrestler?” (Two recurring, highly symbolic presences in a number of his novels.)
I know. Looking back, I feel a little cowardly. (Still star-stuck, perhaps?) In any case, I left the talk as certain as ever of this: Agree or disagree, John Irving always has an opinion, most often a strong one, and he is wholly unafraid to share it with the world. But that’s what we pay him for, right? This is certain too: John Irving’s aggressive thinking serves us—through his fiction—very well, indeed. His latest book, In One Person, an examination of (among other things) what it means to have “crushes on the wrong people,” is no exception.
The Right Side
His public appearances (wisely cast) aside, Irving’s intensity is channeled into and through his consistently brilliant work. Often subtle, sometimes intense, always absorbing, his books have a way of suddenly, out of nowhere, causing a massive and lingering lump to form in your throat; disappointment, sadness, anger, joy, all are brought to bear in pure and powerful forms through his extremely purposeful and well-honed storytelling.
Many call Irving contemporary America’s Charles Dickens. He’s clearly sharpened his pencil at the feet of the great master—and, like Dickens, Irving the yarn-spinner is angry for all the right reasons. For going on half a century, he has created epic tales of the vulnerable yet strong—and the heroism that can be found in the combination of those two qualities. Often misfits in one sense or another, Irving’s characters are champion outcasts offering up and celebrating the diversity inside and between us—a diversity that is so often exploited and turned to hate by intolerance. Yes, there’s a lot to be angry about.
From his memorable early novels (which he maddeningly diminished when he spoke of them that night in 2009), through the mammoth success of The World According to Garp, The Cider House Rules and A Prayer for Owen Meany (I’ve heard each one of these referred to as the Great Modern American Novel), to his more complex, subtle and penetrating recent fiction, we’ve seen a progression of his talent and a fine-tuning of his messages. Despite the fact that his books are as diverse as his characters, a consistent thread emerges: John Irving has created and given loud and clear voices to some of fiction’s greatest cast-asides—real and figurative orphans of our culture.
When you experience Irving’s writing, you find yourself with the distinct feeling that you’re looking in the mirror. For the uninitiated, here’s how it seems to work: As we read these stories, we deeply identify with his central characters—no matter how off-center they seem to be. Their voices resonate too well and sound too much like you talking to yourself to seem in any way “other.” You—yes, we—are the misfits. And so it begins to dawn on us: The world— particularly our American home-team culture—is comprised of uniqueness; it is not the exception to the rule.
I remember reading the strange, sad and delightful The Hotel New Hampshire when I was a kid. I couldn’t get the photographs of the late genius Diane Arbus out of my head. Somehow, as in her disturbing work, the odd had become uncomfortably—and then comfortably—familiar. In the story, Irving serves up a sweaty lesbian in a bear suit, a brother and sister in lust, a suicidal dwarf writer—the bizarre roster goes on. As I read their stories, however, I began to think that this strangeness resembles who I am; I’m not a clean- and cookie-cut fascist who’s marching in lockstep into sameness. In Irving’s world, those bullies are out there, armed with injustice and guns and they aim to marginalize and even kill. But still, said this novel, we can fight back—and we can beat them. There is a potential for heroism in all of us. We just have to get pissed.
Irving’s anger at oppression (sexual, familial, societal, political, you name it) fuels all of his novels. It’s not always laid bare and red-faced, but it’s always poignantly present. And his indignation always seems to be on our behalf—reading him makes you feel somehow alright inside, like every foible and idiosyncrasy, every personal fetish, is okay and should be celebrated rather than buried. More than that, it is from these recesses that we can find and draw upon our inner strength. In One Person, for example, is the “memoir” of a bisexual man born in the 1950s that follows his story through to the present day (by way of the horrifying 1980s). It functions like a rifle shot aimed at sexual denial and its human consequences. As it’s put about the main character’s desire to become a writer (another of Irving’s recurring symbols), “it’s not a career choice.” You just are. Similarly, our lusts “just are” and to the extent that they harm no one else, they’re nothing to be ashamed of—in fact, they require our accepting embrace. Sexual oppression from without or within has dire results—protecting our very humanity is at stake. (Reagan didn’t even speak of AIDS until the last year of his presidency, by which time 20,849 people had died from the disease.)
In the work of John Irving—whether it be the broad-bush, epic life sweeps of Garp or the more focused examination of identity issues of In One Person—the overarching themes are the same: what it means to be an underdog, the importance and meaning of overcoming adversity, and how we would be well-advised to accept each other in all our diverse forms. An exchange in the new book says a lot about the author’s most recent efforts. Of the narrator’s writing it is said: “The same old themes, but better done—the pleas for tolerance never grow tiresome.”
But wait, a quick epilogue: The quote continues: “Of course, everyone is intolerant of something or someone.” As for Irving on Hemingway and Hardy and all his wind about what fiction is and isn’t and should or shouldn’t be, I’ll leave him to his intolerances and continue to enjoy his practice of the craft. (By the way, my friend who swore him off has recently asked to borrow my copy of the new novel.) That’s just the great author being himself. To quote his latest one last time: “We are already who we are, aren’t we?” It’s best just to leave it at that.
John Irving has written 17 books and the Academy Award-winning screenplay for 1999’s movie version of The Cider House Rules. It’s tough to winnow them down to a short list—readers each have their favorites for so many personal reasons. Here are three of mine:
The Hotel New Hampshire (1981)
Coming off the success of The World According to Garp, which rocketed Irving to rock-star status among modern American writers, The Hotel New Hampshire was gobbled up by readers the instant it hit the streets (he subsequently found himself on the cover of Time magazine). The book lived up to its insanely tall order, delivering a story that entrances and absorbs with ingenious plot, and unique and powerful characters. Many of novel’s personae, such as John and Franny Berry, Susie the bear, Iowa Bob, Junior Jones, Chipper Dove and, yes, Sorrow the dog (“Sorrow floats”), have become archetypes of American fiction, representing the best and the worst of us, the weakest and strongest, the wicked and the wise.
Picking up on content from his previous novels, the book cemented some of Irving’s motifs in the national consciousness—soon after its publication, I first heard and understood the term “Irvingesque.” The story is of the Berry family, proprietors of a hotel in New England and then another in Vienna, where situations and characters parade before us with a “strange but true” essence that educates, entertains and alters the trajectories of the lives of the family members. Hilarious, gut wrenching and shocking (sometimes all at the same time), The Hotel New Hampshire chronicles survival (or not) in the face of the absurd and the horrible.
The Cider House Rules (1985)
One of Irving’s most high-profile novels (due largely to the great success of the wonderful movie starring Michael Caine and Tobey Maguire; Irving received an Academy Award for the screenplay), The Cider House Rules tells the story of a “special” orphan named Homer Wells. Set primarily in the 1940s, the book traces Homer’s life beginning with him growing up in an orphanage in Maine. There he is the receiver and witness of the work of the near-saintly Dr. Wilber Larch, who has dedicated his life to providing care for unwanted and unclaimed children, as well as safe abortions during a time when the procedure was still illegal. (I once heard Irving recall that upon reviewing his Larch character in a draft, he found the man to be “too good” to ring true. His solution: “I decided to give him an ether addiction.”)
Indebted to the great work of the good doctor, Homer nevertheless leaves “home” and embarks on a journey of self-discovery that leads him on a circuitous route through life as he navigates his emotional ties and personal desires. Irving’s exploration of marginalization and self-acceptance takes strong form here, and his delineation of hypocrisy, and what amounts to cultural crime (against women and children, in particular) has burned this story into the minds of many. (When a dear friend, a feminist activist and legislator, told me she considered this to be the modern “Great American Novel,” I understood exactly what she meant.)
A Widow for One Year (1998)
A three-part novel tracing the life of Ruth Cole, A Widow for One Year has a calmer darkness to it than Irving’s previous novels, even as it explores some of the same themes using some of the same devices (sudden death, rape, prostitution, the protagonist as a writer). We follow the life of Ruth in three sections, beginning with a challenged childhood in the 1950s where she suffers the loss of family members and the emotional absence of her parents. The second and third sections deal with Ruth’s life as an adult, trying to cope with the footprint of her youth and its impact on her relationships and lens through which she views her family and friends, the world at large and her career as a writer.
The novel has quiet power that’s different from the outrageousness of Garp and New Hampshire, where events unfold with a shock volume that can ring in your ears. Here—though similarly sprinkled and plot-driven by sudden and sometimes bizarre twists, incredulous characters that ring real despite their off-kilter behavior, and mini subplots that lead you out of the story, but around and back in again—the read elicits more reflection than reaction. In many ways, this is my favorite Irving novel—while I surrender some of the bombast and surface tics that I have grown to love in his work, the underlying messages and emotional explorations take up the space, leaving me smiling as much as laughing, sighing as much as crying, thinking as much dreaming.
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Top image: Jane Sobel Klonsky