John Irving was born in Exeter, New Hampshire, on 2 March 1942. His birth name was John Wallace Blunt Jr., in honor of his biological father, a World War II flyer who was shot down over Burma. Irving's mother, Frances Winslow Irving, legally changed his name to John Winslow Irving when he was six years old after he had been adopted by her second husband, Colin F. N. Irving. Because his stepfather taught in the history department at Phillips Exeter Academy, Irving was granted admission, but his struggles as both an outsider (he was one of the few students at the academy who, like the other faculty children, was actually from Exeter) and as a floundering student who was later diagnosed as dyslexic became the backdrop for his journey as a writer. At Exeter, under the tutelage of his wrestling coach, Ted Seabrooke, and his writing teacher, Mr. Bennett, Irving began to cultivate his two lifelong passions: wrestling and writing. His writing process and his understanding of the act of writing were also influenced by the variety of coping strategies that he developed as a result of his learning disability. Because of his dyslexia, Irving understood that his writing process would be markedly distinct from other writers. Irving begins each novel knowing how it will end--even the very line it will end upon, in some instances--and he writes the first draft of each novel in the third person before working back through the manuscript in several drafts and revisions. "Good writing means rewriting, and good wrestling is a matter of redoing--repetition without cease is obligatory, until the moves become second nature," Irving writes in "The Imaginary Girlfriend," a memoir first collected in Trying to Save Piggy Sneed (1993).
As he explained in a 1978 interview with Thomas Williams, Irving's realization that he wished to become a writer led only to a sense of separation: "How lonely that was! There was nothing like majoring in French or going to law school or medical school to look forward to," Irving recounted; "I had a terrible sense of how different I was from all my friends, and I didn't want to be different at all. No kid wants to be different." After his first year of wrestling at the University of Pittsburgh--a source of athletic disappointment--Irving decided to travel to Vienna to study abroad, a choice that only heightened his sense of separation. He told Greil Marcus in a 1979 Rolling Stone interview that Vienna "was so new and strange--or so old, as it turns out, and strange--that it forced me to pay attention to every aspect of it." Irving's insight into the concept of difference--initially triggered by the stark contrasts between Vienna and the familiar New England landscape of his youth--serves as the basis for Irving's penchant for detail. His recognition that the visceral, material accretion of detail is what represents the singularity of a setting or character complements his devotion to the novelistic forms of Charles Dickens, another master of such techniques. Irving's work poses the aesthetic question of range, asking how a story may be told truthfully if the reader does not receive as full and descriptive a picture as possible.
After returning from Vienna, Irving received his B.A., cum laude, from the University of New Hampshire in 1965. In the same year, he published his first story, "A Winter Branch," in Redbook and traveled west to the University of Iowa Writers' Workshop, where he studied with Vance Bourjaily and Kurt Vonnegut. Irving's friendship with Vonnegut continues, and Vonnegut's own sense of discomfort with mainstream America and the literary establishment served as an example and encouragement to Irving. In fact, as a defender of Vonnegut's work in "Kurt Vonnegut and His Critics," published in The New Republic in 1979, Irving creates his own manifesto for writing. In the article, he damns the contemporary novels that seem obscure and philosophically obtuse, arguing against "the assumption that what is easy to read has been easy to write." Naming Thomas Pynchon in particular, Irving suggests that such writers have not "struggled hard enough" to make their work "more readable."
Although Irving's career is marked by a radical separation from both mainstream academic and popular fiction, the early arc of his writing life mirrors that of many contemporary American authors. With the rise of creative-writing programs and M.F.A. workshops, the vast majority of writers in the latter half of the twentieth century found themselves aligned in some fashion with the academy, often as writers in residence or tenured faculty members. Upon receiving an M.F.A. from the University of Iowa in 1967, Irving entered academe as a professor at the now defunct Windham College in Putney, Vermont. Putney was Irving's primary residence until his 1981 divorce from his first wife, painter Shyla Leary, whom he had married in 1964. Between 1967 and 1978, however, Irving traveled to various colleges and universities, hoping to find time to write while supporting his young and growing family. In 1969 Irving, his wife, and his first son, Colin, journeyed to Vienna so that Irving might work on the screenplay of his first novel, Setting Free the Bears (1968); Irving's second son, Brendan, was born in Vienna. Upon his return to the United States, Irving taught at the Iowa Writers' Workshop for three years, at Mount Holyoke College in South Hadley, Massachusetts, for two years, and at Brandeis University in Waltham, Massachusetts, for another year. The only exceptions to his teaching schedule during this eleven-year period came as the result of a grant from the Rockefeller Foundation in 1972 and later a Guggenheim Fellowship in 1976.
Although such a rigorous course load did not hamper Irving's productivity--he wrote and published four novels over eleven years--it did wear upon him. As he explained to Marcus, "I felt I'd been to Iowa. I'd gotten a lot out of it, I'd liked it fine. But now. . . . I was sick of teaching. I didn't want to do it anymore." Of course, the success of The World According to Garp made it possible for Irving to forego a dual career as a teacher and a novelist. But his dedication to the sport of wrestling did not waver, and despite having no financial need to do so, he continued to coach wrestling until 1989. In 1987 he married literary agent Janet Turnbull, with whom he has a third son, Everett.
In his novels Irving has crafted a peculiar form of postmodernism in which he fashions immense Dickensian narratives that explore various aspects of postwar Americana--from the politics of sex and love to the often corrosive intersections between violence and the family in contemporary life. From his first novel, Setting Free the Bears , many of the motifs that characterize Irving's fictions--including his penchant for magical bears, moments of devastating violence, the netherworld of Vienna, and earthy doses of sexuality--exist, albeit in relatively primitive forms. With Vonnegut's guidance, Irving began composing Setting Free the Bears as his M.F.A. thesis at the University of Iowa Writers' Workshop. Clearly influenced by the fictions of Vonnegut and Günter Grass, Irving's first novel is divided into three discrete sections. In "Siggy," Irving traces the experiences of Siegfried "Siggy" Javotnik and Hannes Graff, who drop out of the University of Vienna in 1967 and travel rather indiscriminately around Austria on a 700cc British Royal Enfield motorcycle. A journey narrative of sorts, Siggy and Graff's story exists, on its more simplistic levels, as a sentimental paean to the enduring human search for freedom. Siggy and Graff eventually plan to visit the Riviera, although their relationship with Gallen, a young woman also bent on enjoying the freedom of her youth, threatens to derail their friendship. After they visit the Vienna zoo, Siggy dreams of freeing the animals. Later, when he returns to Vienna in order to put his zoo plot into action, Siggy dies when the motorcycle crashes into a truck filled with beehives. Guilty over his friend's untimely death, Graff endures a lengthy recovery from the bee stings that he receives in the accident.
In the second part of the novel, "The Notebook," Graff reads his late companion's autobiographical journal, which includes Siggy's detailed plans for the zoo break. The notebook, which Siggy calls his "pre-history," tells the story of his family's experiences during the Anschluss, the German annexation of Austria in 1938. "The Notebook" deftly contrasts the power of the state with the rights of the individual, a motif that exerts a significant impact upon part 3 of Setting Free the Bears, "The Zoo Watch," in which Graff carries out Siggy's mission. His liberation of the Vienna zoo ends in violence and despair. Graff's relationship with Gallen concludes in a rather dismal and painful fashion as well. Alone in his grief and dismay, Graff embarks on a search for Siggy's mentor, Ernst Watzek-Trummer, in an effort to learn the "real" history of Siggy's past. Deliberately vague, the conclusion of Setting Free the Bears suggests possibilities of hope and reconciliation in Graff's future as he rides away on the motorcycle: "I didn't panic; I leaned to the curves; I held the crown of the road and drove faster and faster. I truly outdrove the wind. For sure--for the moment, at least--there was no gale hurrying me out of this world."
Setting Free the Bears sold scarcely more than six thousand hardcover copies and received somewhat lukewarm, albeit optimistic, notices in the popular and critical press. In retrospect, Carol C. Harter and James R. Thompson noted in their 1986 study that "Setting Free the Bears possesses the classic qualities of a first novel by a talented but underdeveloped writer: major weaknesses, signs of imitation and moments of unqualified literary success." Yet, "to the student of his later work," they add, "much that here both succeeds and fails points ahead to, and helps clarify, the mature fiction."
The Water-Method Man (1972) exhibits many of the stylistic idiosyncrasies of its predecessor. In terms of its narrative, though, Irving's second novel demonstrates the writer's evolution as a literary craftsman with a keen eye for character and plot. Explicitly intended as a comic novel, The Water-Method Man traces the story of the irresponsible and indecisive Fred "Bogus" Trumper, who discovers the value inherent in having a family and a vocation. Shifting between first-and second-person points of view, the novel devotes particular attention to Trumper's experiences with a blocked urinary tract, for which he sees a urologist, Dr. Jean Claude Vigneron. The cure for his ailment--the "water-method" treatment--involves imbibing vast quantities of water both before and after sex. Separated from his family, Trumper pursues an extramarital affair in New York City with Tulpen, a twenty-eight-year-old German émigré. In addition to eschewing his family obligations back in Iowa, Trumper has abandoned his English doctoral dissertation. After impregnating Tulpen, Trumper escapes to Vienna in the throes of an early midlife crisis of sorts in which he searches for Merrill Overturf, his long-lost best friend from his undergraduate years. In Austria, Trumper finds himself involved in a bizarre drug-smuggling operation and is felled by a nervous breakdown. After he discovers that Overturf had died, rather senselessly, two years earlier, Trumper returns to the United States, where he travels to Maine in search of another friend from his youth, Cuthbert "Couth" Bennett.
When Trumper is finally reunited with Couth in Maine, he learns that Couth is now living with Trumper's estranged wife and son at the Pillsbury estate. This discovery triggers an epiphany in Trumper, who realizes his immaturity and inability to grow up. He subsequently returns to the University of Iowa, where he completes his dissertation, a translation of the Old Low Norse work Akthelt and Gunnel. In addition to completing his doctoral work, Trumper returns to Tulpen and their child. As the novel comes to a close, Trumper savors the possibility of a teaching position, and his new family enjoys a celebration--the festival of Throgshafen--at the Pillsbury estate as the guests of Couth, who has now married Trumper's former wife and fathered a child of his own. "In good company we can be brave. Mindful of his scars," Irving writes, "Bogus Trumper smiled cautiously at all the good flesh around him." In his review of the novel in The New York Times in 1972 Jan Carew wrote:
Irving's first novel, Setting Free the Bears, received the kind of critical praise that makes one approach his second, The Water-Method Man, with a certain amount of caution. But the first few chapters of this new work dispel any doubts about the sustained vigor of his talent. He quickly reasserts his inventiveness, wit and obvious ability to devour new experiences, digest them rapidly and convert them into imaginative symbols and lively literary episodes.
The novel typically received good reviews, but it sold less well than Setting Free the Bears.
Irving's third novel, The 158-Pound Marriage (1974), finds the writer at an authorial crossroads of sorts. In one sense, he seems ready to embark upon a novel of more depth and scope than his previous efforts; yet, in many ways, he appears confused about the larger direction that his narratives should take. In his interview with Marcus, Irving admitted that "The 158-Pound Marriage is about two couples--a sexual foursome--and it grew very specifically out of Ford Madox Ford's The Good Soldier  and John Hawkes's The Blood Oranges ." Although Irving's critics frequently deride The 158-Pound Marriage as his most poorly written and least significant work, the novel nevertheless demonstrates the emergence of the literary voice that found greater success in The World According to Garp. As his most extended analysis of wrestling, moreover, The 158-Pound Marriage compares the nature and duration of marriage to a wrestling match, a competition of sorts that challenges its players to understand the ebb and flow of the sport or of the rhythms inherent in an intimate interpersonal relationship.
The novel tells the story of two couples, the first of which includes Irving's unnamed narrator, a history professor, and his wife, Utch, an Austrian immigrant and a refugee from World War II, which claimed the lives of both of her parents. The other couple in The 158-Pound Marriage consists of Severin Winter, a German professor and wrestling coach at the same New England university as the narrator, and his wife, Edith, a budding writer of wealthy lineage. The two couples' social relationship soon develops into a consensual sexual one of nearly idealistic proportions: as a Viennese war refugee, Severin enjoys a natural affinity for Utch, while the narrator and Edith share a passion for literature and language. Their extramarital affair collapses after its participants--except Severin, who warns the others not to take their new erotic relationship too seriously--lose control of their emotions. When their "quaternion" begins to threaten the well-being of their marriage, Severin and Edith finally end the affair to the great chagrin of the narrator and Utch, who has fallen in love with Severin, her countryman. The narrator later discovers that their entire episode of wife-swapping had been deftly orchestrated by Edith as a punishment of sorts for Severin because of a previous infidelity. As the novel comes to a close, Utch leaves Irving's narrator and returns to Austria with their children. The demise of their marriage forces the narrator to confront his ethical failings and to realize that "I knew once again that I knew nothing."
A variety of critics in the popular press were unimpressed with Irving's musings on the ethically fractious state of contemporary America. In The New York Times Book Review, in 1974, Anatole Broyard wrote that in The 158-Pound Marriage
Irving seems to be saying that, unless we Americans start seriously grappling with our national and sexual history, we are lost. Though there is some truth in this, he exaggerates. In taking intellectuals as representative Americans, he flatters and slanders them at the same time. And his book, to borrow one of his own phrases, merely "stumbles toward profundity."
Perhaps more important, though, several readers questioned the overall construction of Irving's third novel, particularly in terms of the writer's attempt at fashioning an intertextual relationship with Ford's and Hawkes's novels. Kenneth Womack, for example, contended in International Fiction Review (1996) that the "real failure" of The 158-Pound Marriage "lies simply in the fact that it demonstrates nothing new about The Good Soldier and The Blood Oranges. Irving offers his readers no fresh nuances or revelations about the subjects and narrative forms previously broached by his primary texts. Instead," Womack added, Irving "merely borrows their ideas about character and plot design."
The publication of The World According to Garp in 1978 irrevocably altered the course of Irving's career. While the narrative draws upon terrain already familiar to his readers--including New Hampshire and Vienna as its well-trodden settings--Irving self-consciously re-envisions his approach to the novel as literary form. Eschewing traditional textual and temporal structures during the composition of The World According to Garp, Irving struggled with the new direction that his aesthetic was taking as the novel began to assume its now well-known shape:
I had a shaky time in the early going with it--it was raggedly put together, and I feel about it a little like a tailor who sees somebody walking away in a suit that everybody else says looks like a good suit, but they can't see the seams, but he remembers how many times he had to cut the pant-leg, you know what I mean? . . . But I see the seams--I know that the making of that book was not a smooth and satisfying event.
In The World According to Garp Irving also begins to formulate his conception of the Dickensian novel as his principal writerly paradigm. In his 1986 essay on Dickens titled "The King of the Novel," Irving writes that the "intention of a novel by Charles Dickens is to move you emotionally, not intellectually, and it is by emotional means that Dickens intends to influence you socially." For Irving, the Dickensian novel implies a narrative superstructure that involves a morass of narrative and character detail, as well as overtly sentimentalized gestures designed to impact the reader in a highly personalized fashion. Irving adds that "Dickens was abundant and magnificent with description, with the atmosphere surrounding everything--and with the tactile, with every detail that was terrifying or viscerally felt." By purposefully creating a wide range of characters, each with his or her own peculiar sets of experiences and circumstances, Irving overwhelms the reader's senses with his characters' inherent particularity. In short, Irving's novels from The World According to the Garp onward demand that readers encounter his characters in all of the humanity, profundity, and absurdity that living in a postmodern world necessarily entails. Todd F. Davis and Womack describe this phenomenon in a 1998 Style article as Irving's desire to fashion "characterscapes." According to Davis and Womack, this aspect of Irving's fictive world involves "the description of specific incidents that reflect the inner life of a given character's personhood; fundamental elements of anatomy, dress, physical movements, professional habits, and the like must be foregrounded for readers."
In The World According to Garp Irving traces Garp's story from birth, his formative years, and his marriage through the growth of his family, his emergence as a writer of international standing, and his untimely death. Perhaps even more important, though, Irving attends to "Life after Garp" in the novel as well. In this way he establishes the characterscapes for many, if not all, of the characters and thus ensures that everyone in his fictive world enjoys a genuine sense of particularity. Characterized both by images of apocalyptic violence and moments of tender human accommodation, The World According to Garp is a complex meditation on what Irving perceives as the overarching interrelationship in contemporary culture between sex and violence.
The novel begins during the 1940s, when nurse Jenny Fields engineers her impregnation in Boston's Mercy Hospital by Technical Sergeant Garp, a mortally wounded ball-turret gunner. "I wanted a job and I wanted to live alone," Jenny explains in The World According to Garp. "Then I wanted a baby. But I didn't want to have to share my body or my life to have one." Her plans to raise Garp in a world of experience and uninhibited discovery begin with her son's youthful adventures at Steering Academy, where Jenny serves as the school nurse, and later in Vienna, where Jenny and Garp travel in order for him to find his authorial voice.
During his years at Steering Academy, Garp comes into the orbit of the Percy children, the copious offspring of a dysfunctional marriage that pointedly lacks love as its ethical firmament. After Garp's adolescent sexual initiation at the hands of Cushie Percy, the aspiring writer falls in love with Helen Holm, the daughter of his beloved wrestling coach. In Vienna, Garp makes little progress as a writer, while Jenny composes her massive autobiography, a feminist manifesto on gender and power dynamics. Titled A Sexual Suspect, Jenny's volume becomes an international best-seller and establishes her as one of the premier voices of the feminist movement. In her autobiography Jenny writes that "in this dirty-minded world, you are either somebody's wife or somebody's whore--or fast on your way to becoming one or the other." Jenny subsequently opens a women's shelter at her family's ancestral home at Dog's Head Harbor on the New Hampshire coast. Meanwhile, Garp marries Helen, with whom he has two children, Duncan and Walt.
As a frustrated writer in his mother's considerable shadow and a househusband of sorts, Garp engages in affairs with the children's babysitters, while Helen, now a university professor, develops an erotic relationship with Michael Milton, one of her graduate students. The tragic conclusion of Helen's affair with Michael is one of the most violent scenes in Irving's corpus, as well as a powerful exemplar of the manner in which Irving intermingles sex and death in the novel. The car accident that concludes their relationship takes place in the Garps' driveway as Helen accommodates her young lover with a farewell bout of oral sex. In the ensuing collision--as Helen's family literally crashes into her secret life with Michael--Walt dies; Garp and Helen sustain serious injuries; Duncan loses an eye; and Helen bites off three-quarters of her young lover's penis.
Garp and Helen's marriage survives only because of their deep and abiding love for one another; yet, the "Under Toad"--Walt's playful rendering of the ocean undertow and Garp's sinister metaphor for fate--plunges the family into grief yet again when an antifeminist assassinates Jenny. Although Garp finally enjoys commercial success with the publication of The World According to Bensenhaver, various moments of sorrow and the ominous "Under Toad" threaten the tranquility of his final years, when he returns to Steering Academy to coach wrestling. In addition to his increasingly public confrontations with the Ellen Jamesians--a radical feminist group whose members engage in self-mutilation in order to honor Ellen James, the victim of a childhood rape in which her assailants cut out her tongue--Garp's latter years are marked by the renewal of his family circle, an ever-widening ménage that includes young Jenny Garp (named after her slain grandmother), the transgendered former National Football League (NFL) linebacker Roberta Muldoon, and even Ellen James herself, who finally discovers a more fully realized sense of self in the Garps' regenerative, commune-like household. Garp's assassination--on the wrestling mat, no less--at the hands of demented Pooh Percy, who associates her sister Cushie's death in childbirth with Garp's raging adolescent lust, brings Irving's dark musings on the interconnections between sex and death full circle. Irving's epilogue, "Life after Garp," traces the personal histories of the surviving characters. A unifying mechanism of sorts, "Life after Garp" suggests that Irving's readers, as with the characters in his novel, also share in the larger fate of humankind. "In the world according to Garp," Irving writes at the conclusion of the novel, "we are all terminal cases."
Irving could scarcely have begun to imagine the remarkable popular and critical response to The World According to Garp, which became an international phenomenon. The novel sold more than 100,000 copies in hardcover; by contrast, The 158-Pound Marriage, his commercially weakest novel, sold a mere 2,500 copies. The paperback edition of The World According to Garp later earned the American Book Award for the best paperback of 1979. Nominated for the National Book Award, the novel was the subject of a highly aggressive and effective advertising campaign that featured the slogan, "I Believe in Garp." Directed by George Roy Hill, scripted by Steve Tesich, and starring Robin Williams, the 1982 motion-picture adaptation of the novel enjoyed rave reviews as well. The critical response to the new direction in Irving's postmodern approach to narrative was overwhelmingly positive. In his analysis of the novel in The New York Times Book Review, Christopher Lehmann-Haupt observed in 1978 that "The World According to Garp, for all its realism, is not a realistic novel. It is a novel about a writer writing novels--or, more precisely, about the way a sensitive human being communicates his response to reality through the stories he makes up. . . . However you see it, between the imagined event and mundane reality that inspired its invention, there is room for laughter."
Literary critics continue to characterize The World According to Garp as the signal moment in Irving's evolution as a writer. Josie P. Campbell, for example, praises the novel in her 1998 study for the "richness of its many layers, the extraordinary flexibility and grace of its prose, and the fulfillment of Garp's--and Irving's--criteria for good fiction; the novel makes the reader wonder what will happen next, and what happens is not so much real but 'true.'" The World According to Garp obviously moves beyond Irving's more derivative, intertextual indulgences in The 158-Pound Marriage. Raymond J. Wilson III contends, moreover, that The World According to Garp "illustrates a key aspect of postmodernism, that of formal replenishment," as well as a tendency toward metafiction and a rejection of the high modernist pretensions of Irving's more immediate literary precursors.
In contrast, in his introduction to an anthology of critical essays devoted to Irving's work, Harold Bloom sees The World According to Garp as "essentially . . . a period piece, as all of Irving's novels and stories seem fated to become." He describes rereading The World According to Garp after more than two decades as a "mixed experience, since the novel itself is a rather eclectic mix. It starts out as a Joycean portrait of the artist as a young man, but turns into a Pynchonian 'Postmodernist' parody." Yet, Bloom's commentary hardly begins to account for the considerable role of The World According to Garp as a textual conduit of sorts between the grand narratives of the collective literary past and the often more experimental novels of the late twentieth century that challenge the boundaries of the novel as literary genre and attempt to address the vexing interpersonal contradictions and complexities inherent in contemporary life.
On the morning of his assassination, Garp writes a letter to his publisher about his plans for his next novel, My Father's Illusions. An exuberant Garp explains the plot as a story about "an idealistic father who has many children. He keeps establishing little utopias for his kids to grow up in." In many ways, Irving's fifth novel, The Hotel New Hampshire , explores this same quasi-utopian premise. A self-conscious rereading of the conclusion of F. Scott Fitzgerald's The Great Gatsby (1925), this novel is hardly derivative in the same fashion as The 158-Pound Marriage and its overt intertextual pandering. Rather, The Hotel New Hampshire succeeds because of the manner in which Irving employs the same kind of Dickensian scope evident in The World According to Garp. Irving's notion of utopia in The Hotel New Hampshire finds its origins in his characters' search for ways in which to emerge from the conflicts and compromises of life in order to create brave new worlds of existence.
The Hotel New Hampshire traces several years in the life of the Berry family of Dairy, New Hampshire. At times the stuff of fairy tales, while at others a narrative of genuine sorrow and disdain, The Hotel New Hampshire begins with the initial meeting and later marriage of Winslow Berry and Mary Bates, whose romantic courtship comprises the core of the Berry family's existence. After serving in World War II and after graduating from Harvard in 1946, Win opens the first Hotel New Hampshire in a former girls' school in Dairy. Win and Mary raise five children: Frank, Franny, John (the intentionally sentimental narrator of the novel), Lilly, and Egg. During their years in Dairy, the Berry children discover sex, which functions, as in The World According to Garp, as a simultaneously thrilling and harrowing adventure that defines the nature of their existence. Frank, for example, learns that he is homosexual, an aspect of his persona that separates him from his condescending peers. Franny's gang rape by high-school quarterback Chipper Dove and his cohorts on Halloween leaves her spiritually scarred. John engages in a sexually unfulfilling relationship with Ronda Ray, an employee at the unsuccessful first Hotel New Hampshire.
Win and Mary decide to open the second Hotel New Hampshire in Vienna as a favor to the gnome-like character Freud, who, with a bear called State o' Maine, helped create the magic of their youthful, prewar courtship days in Maine. After Mary and Egg die in a plane crash on their way to Europe, the surviving members of the Berry family discover that the hotel in Vienna, the Gasthaus Freud, is nothing more than the home of a coterie of prostitutes and revolutionaries. During their stay in Vienna, the children, particularly John and Franny, become increasingly isolated. The mantra "keep passing the open windows" functions as the maxim that the Berry family repeats in order to ensure their mutual psychological and physical survival. After subverting the revolutionaries' plot to blow up the State Opera in Vienna, the Berry family relocates to New York City, where they live in a pair of hotels. During this period John and Franny confront their growing incestuous attraction for one another; Frank becomes a successful literary agent; and the dwarf-like Lilly finds her voice as an author and enjoys a lucrative writing career. John and Franny subsequently "cure" themselves of their erotic desires by engaging in an exhausting sexual encounter in Franny's hotel room. Working on the family biography, Trying to Grow, Lilly finds herself unable to proceed beyond the scene of the plane crash that claims Mary and Egg's lives. Despondent and unable to keep passing the open windows, Lilly leaps to her death from her room in the Stanhope Hotel. The family subsequently opens the third Hotel New Hampshire, formerly the Arbuthnot-by-the-Sea, in order to satisfy Win's remaining illusions. Never truly a hotel, the last Hotel New Hampshire functions as a rape-crisis center.
As the novel comes to a close, John celebrates the family's life together through his dream-like parody of Fitzgerald's final words in The Great Gatsby:
So we dream on. Thus we invent our lives. We give ourselves a sainted mother, we make our father a hero, and someone's older brother, and someone's older sister--they become our heroes, too. . . . We dream on and on: the best hotel, the perfect family, the resort life. And our dreams escape us almost as vividly as we can imagine them.
Published in 1981 with a massive commercial run of 175,000 hardcover copies--followed by a second printing of 100,000 additional copies shortly thereafter--The Hotel New Hampshire was a popular success. Critically, the novel received mixed reviews. In The New York Times in 1981, for example, James Atlas wrote that Irving, being "unwilling to entrust himself to the tragedy inherent in our common lot, brings in doom with all the subtlety of a set change on an opera stage. His obsession with grotesque and violent death is so persistent that after a while it begins to seem hostile, punitive--another form of authorial aggression." Yet, in 1981 in the Village Voice, Eliot Fremont-Smith praised the novel for "its sheer energy" and for its "magnetic characters, scenic wonders, horrendous happenings, and raffish, boffo jokes on every page." Ultimately, Fremont-Smith writes, The Hotel New Hampshire "alerts concern" about postmodern morality and the significance of the family.
In his sixth novel, The Cider House Rules (1985), Irving tackles the issue of abortion and its bifurcating impact upon contemporary American life. The most Dickensian of his novels in terms of its textual scope, wide range of characters, and expansive ideological vision, The Cider House Rules traces the story of Homer Wells's formative years at an orphanage in St. Cloud's, Maine, where he becomes the protégé of Dr. Wilbur Larch, St. Cloud's resident obstetrician and covert abortionist. An ether addict, Larch begins performing abortions after his experiences at pre-World War I Boston's Lying-In Hospital, where he witnesses the nightmarish consequences of illegal abortions. At the orphanage in St. Cloud's, Larch's moral philosophy regarding the ethics of abortion is founded upon an exceedingly pragmatic principle: as obstetrician, he delivers babies; as abortionist, he "delivers mothers." In the evenings, he pointedly reads aloud to his young charges from Dickensian novels about orphans--including David Copperfield (1849-1850) and Great Expectations (1860-1861). His nightly salute--"Good night, you Princes of Maine, you Kings of New England!"--underscores Larch's ethical desire to "treat orphans as if they came from royal families."
A surrogate son of sorts to Larch, Homer soon learns how to function as a midwife, although he pointedly refuses to become schooled in the medical art of performing abortions. While Larch considers a fetus the "product of conception," Homer believes that a fetus possesses a soul. Quite obviously, their debate over the morality of abortion exists as a microcosm for the much larger, although equally disjunctive, dispute that occurs across the globe.
Much to Larch's dismay, Homer finally leaves St. Cloud's after meeting Wally Worthington and Candy Kendall, a young couple from Ocean View, Maine, who have come to the orphanage to avail themselves of Larch's services as abortionist. In Ocean View, Homer joins the Worthington household, for whom he works in the family's apple orchard. Homer feels a brotherly affection for Wally and harbors a thinly veiled attraction for Candy. After Wally's plane is lost over Burma during World War II, Homer and Candy conceive a child, Angel, who is born in secret at St. Cloud's. When a paralyzed Wally is discovered alive, Homer and Candy return to Ocean View with Angel, whom they claim to be their adopted son. Wally, Candy, and Homer subsequently raise Angel together in the Worthington homestead. The novel reaches its moral crisis when Homer learns, via the now-adolescent Angel, that Mr. Rose, the de facto supervisor of the coterie of migrant orchard workers, has impregnated his own daughter, Rose Rose. Finally forced to choose between the ethical dilemmas inherent in the tragedy of incest versus the moral implications of abortion, Homer opts to perform an abortion for Rose Rose. After Larch overdoses on ether, Homer returns to St. Cloud's, where he assumes Larch's work as the deliverer of babies and of mothers.
Irving's pro-choice manifesto in The Cider House Rules was a significant popular success. Critically, The Cider House Rules enjoyed rave reviews in the popular and scholarly press alike. In his review of the novel in 1985 in The New York Times, Benjamin DeMott wrote that "what is felt in the grain of The Cider House Rules--in its study of rule-givers and rule-breakers--is that the history of compassion cannot have a stop and must perpetually demand larger generosities than those hitherto conceived. By responding to that demand we may, tomorrow, invent ways to abolish nightmare choices between born and unborn." In Understanding John Irving (1991), moreover, Edward C. Reilly astutely lauds the novel and its place in Irving's fictive canon as "a definite maturing in Irving's talents."
In many ways Irving's seventh novel, A Prayer for Owen Meany (1989), has emerged as his most popular narrative. Despite a mixed critical response, the novel continues to enjoy a tremendous following among Irving's substantial readership. A Prayer for Owen Meany tells the dramatic story of narrator Johnny Wheelwright's peculiar religious apotheosis via his friendship with Owen Meany. A bildungsroman of sorts, Johnny's narrative deftly merges the past with the present as he sifts through his memories in a painstaking effort to understand Owen's remarkable impact upon his life. "I am doomed to remember a boy with a wrecked voice," Johnny writes, "not because of his voice, or because he was the smallest person I ever knew, or even because he was the instrument of my mother's death, but because he is the reason I believe in God; I am a Christian because of Owen Meany." As a diminutive child with a shrill and awkward voice--so awkward, in fact, that Irving opts to represent it throughout the novel with capital letters--Owen indeed believes that he is "God's instrument," a role for which he prepares throughout his life. In their childhood years, for example, Johnny and Owen effect a basketball maneuver in which Owen slam-dunks the ball after being boosted by Johnny. Owen pointedly insists upon perfecting the shot until he can perform it in three seconds flat. Much of the novel concerns Johnny's search for his elusive father, as well as Owen's quasi-religious destiny and its ethical interrelationship with the social and cultural chaos surrounding the Vietnam War during the late 1960s.
Structurally, the narrative of A Prayer for Owen Meany involves two significant plot elements: the peculiar death of Johnny's mother, and Owen's heroic moment of personal sacrifice in 1968, the year that Johnny flees the United States and the specter of the Vietnam War for Canada. In the first chapter of the novel Johnny's mother, Tabby, is felled by a foul ball hit by Owen in a Little League game. The event is filled with tragicomic absurdity; years later, Johnny's Little League coach, Mr. Chickering, despite his progressing Alzheimer's disease, still remembers Tabby's bizarre demise. Johnny and Owen's careful, exacting search for the narrator's father ends in utter disappointment, when they discover that his father is Reverend Merrill, the pleasant but ineffectual minister of the local Congregational church. In the interim, Owen's own search for identity involves his performance in two Christmas pageants, the church Christmas play and a production of Dickens's A Christmas Carol. In the latter, Owen takes the part of the Ghost of Christmas Yet to Come, while he plays the Christ child in the former production. The narrator astutely recognizes in Owen a "deity to be reckoned with" and a "special Christ." Owen's destiny finally comes to fruition in a restroom in the Phoenix airport in 1968 when he sacrifices his own life to save a group of Vietnamese children. In a single, dramatic scene, Irving merges the moral tragedy of the Vietnam War with Owen's self-sacrifice and the vague promise of a more hopeful and ethical future to come.
The novel originated in Irving's own confusion about the mystery of faith and miracles. As he told Richard Bernstein in a 1989 interview, "I've always asked myself what would be the magnitude of the miracle that could convince me of religious faith." A Prayer for Owen Meany enjoyed a massive commercial response upon its publication in 1989. In his 1989 New York Times Book Review analysis of the novel, Alfred Kazin challenged the serious pretensions of A Prayer for Owen Meany: "Irving is terribly in earnest most of the time, politically and sacramentally, with the same easy sense of virtue. The book is as cunningly contrived as the most skillful mystery story--that is the best of it. But there is absolutely no irony." Yet, other critics praise the deliberate lack of irony and deceivingly simple structural design. Philip Page, for example, argues that in A Prayer for Owen Meany "Irving plays with the hermeneutical dialectic. He sets up an apparent dichotomy between the two traditional ways of knowing, but simultaneously he parodies each approach, unravels the distinction between them, and half-mockingly offers common sense as a third alternative." In her critique of the novel, Debra Shostak valorizes Irving's intentionally "earnest" narration of Owen's act of self-sacrifice. Owen's miracle, she writes, "is an ambiguous discovery" for Johnny, since it leaves him "drifting in the human world, emotionally sterile and sexually neutered. His recovery of origin does not grant him the power in the worlds of matter or spirit that we have come to expect from the conventions of such a narrative quest."
Written as a sentimental paean to Graham Greene, A Son of the Circus (1994) is, at least in North America, Irving's most poorly received novel since his tremendous post-World According to Garp success. A convoluted admixture of genres--including the murder mystery, the thriller, and the author's regular forays into the Dickensian form--A Son of the Circus presents the life and work of Farrokh Daruwalla, an eminent, albeit unsettled and awkwardly isolated, Indian surgeon who, as a hobby of sorts, studies the origins of achondroplasia, commonly known as dwarfism. For this reason, he extracts blood from circus dwarfs in order to analyze genetic markers of achondroplasia. In his spare time Daruwalla relaxes at Bombay's Duckworth Club and writes screenplays, including the fictive Inspector Dhar series. "Because his medical practice was an exercise of almost pure goodness," Irving writes, Daruwalla "was ill prepared for the real world. Mostly he saw malformations and deformities and injuries to children; he tried to restore their little joints to their intended perfection. The real world had no purpose as clear as that." The plot concerns the murder of Dr. Lal, a distinguished member of the Duckworth Club, and the parallel narrative of Vinod and his family of circus dwarfs. In addition to a subplot involving Daruwalla's adopted younger brother, John D., who was separated from his own twin brother at birth, the novel traces the ensuing high jinks of Lal's suspected murderer, a compulsive note writer and cartoonist of sorts who has assumed the persona of Inspector Dhar and may also, in fact, be the serial killer of several of Bombay's "cage-girl" prostitutes.
Daruwalla and John D. are ultimately called into action as de facto detectives at the behest of Inspector Patel, himself a form of homage to the detectives who inevitably appear in novels by Greene and Dickens. Much of the labyrinthine, multifarious plot centers on the machinations of Nancy, a young American hippie who witnesses yet another murder and carries an enormous cash-filled dildo with her. Her subsequent marriage to Inspector Patel, and Vinod's increasingly significant role in the crime narrative, allow Irving to begin merging the seemingly disparate threads and subplots in order to unmask the killer, reunite John D. with his long-lost twin, and provide the displaced Daruwalla with a new vocation involving AIDS research at a Canadian hospice. After capturing Lal's killer and engineering John D.'s reunion with his identical twin, Martin Mills, Daruwalla leaves for Toronto. In an epilogue in the tradition of The World According to Garp, Irving recounts the postnarrative experiences of Daruwalla, John D., Inspector Patel, Nancy, and Vinod. The synergy of their lives in Irving's novel clearly functions as a loosely veiled metaphor for the inevitable interrelationships that people share in the real world. This theme exists at the heart of many of Irving's narratives, with their fairly explicit interpersonal ethics.
After its publication in September 1994, A Son of the Circus met with a decidedly mixed response. Several critics strongly objected to what they perceived to be the overly circuitous and perplexing narrative structure. Robert Towers, for instance, contended in 1994 in The New York Times Book Review that Irving's many "thematic excursions . . . tend to be superficial, insufficiently grounded in the characters and inadequately dramatized in the novel's action. I found them a little boring, interruptions rather than enhancements of my pleasure in the lively progression of events. More seriously, the characters themselves, while often striking in their conception, do not really cohere." In addition to echoing Towers's remarks about the tortuous plot, Earl L. Dachslager, in his 1994 review of A Son of the Circus in the Houston Chronicle, wrote: "Whether intended or not, the novel, as a sort of postmodern parody, resembles nothing less than a three-ring circus. A lot of strange stuff goes on, some of it meant to be amusing, some of it exciting and scary, some of it simply weird. In the end, very little of it proves rewarding or memorable." Yet, in John Irving: A Critical Companion Campbell defends A Son of the Circus, arguing that the novel "has been misread and undervalued by most reviewers, who fail to see his experimentation with such forms as the crime novel and the thriller. . . . Irving has written his own allegory for our time."
Irving's ninth novel, A Widow for One Year (1998), is a much more fully realized entry in his fictive canon--particularly in comparison to the flawed A Son of the Circus. While it hardly reaches the narrative heights of The World According to Garp, The Hotel New Hampshire, and The Cider House Rules, the novel is a stylistic triumph. As the title A Widow for One Year suggests, the novel concerns itself with the passage of time and the manner in which temporal continuity and discontinuity impact the rhythms of human lives. The narrative traces the story of Ruth Cole during three substantial phases in her life: as a four-year-old in, for her, the idyllic summer of 1958; as a thirty-six-year-old writer in the fall of 1990; and as a widow in 1995 at the age of forty-one. For Ruth's family, time figuratively stops when the teenage brothers that Ruth never knew, Thomas and Timothy, die in an automobile accident. Their memory and their awful demise haunt the family, especially their grieving mother, Marion, who hangs photographs of the boys throughout the house on Long Island that she shares with her husband, Ted, and Ruth, the daughter that the couple conceived in a rash attempt to assuage their pain over Thomas and Timothy's untimely deaths.
A children's book illustrator and an alcoholic adulterer, Ted hires Eddie O'Hare, a fledgling writer from Exeter Academy, to work as the family's driver and as his assistant. An inveterate plotter, Ted chooses the youthful Eddie for the job because of his uncanny resemblance to Thomas. Ted hopes that Marion will engage in a love affair with Eddie and thus provide him with the necessary grounds for divorce. Although Marion indeed falls passionately in love with Eddie, readers soon learn that she was planning to divorce Ted anyway and move to Canada, leaving her daughter to be raised by her estranged husband. In Toronto, Marion writes a series of successful detective novels as Alice Somerset. Before leaving Long Island, however, Marion removes all of the boys' photographs from the house, leaving empty hooks in their places in the walls. In the ensuing years, Ruth will fashion stories for each of the hooks and thus create new narratives about the lives of her unknown brothers. By the age of thirty-six, Ruth has emerged as a successful novelist. When she travels to Amsterdam for a book tour, she begins writing her latest novel, My Last Bad Boyfriend, after observing the seamy underworld of the city's famous red-light district.
In one of the most important scenes of the novel, Ruth pays a prostitute, Rooie, so that she can covertly watch Rooie with a customer. Instead of witnessing the planned sexual transaction, Ruth watches in horror as the customer breaks Rooie's neck. Ruth's subsequent guilt over her inaction and Rooie's death serve as the catalysts for several key events in her life, including her secret role in the capture of Rooie's murderer, her hasty marriage to her editor, Allan Albright (who dies of a heart attack shortly thereafter), and the birth of her son, Graham (named in honor of Graham Greene). After the publication of My Last Bad Boyfriend, Dutch detective Harry Hoekstra recognizes the details of Rooie's murder and arranges to meet Ruth, whom he loves and eventually marries. In the tradition of the Romance, the novel concludes with a series of marriages, reunions, and reconciliations. Marion and Ruth are reunited on Thanksgiving weekend, as are Marion and Eddie, who have maintained a tender and enduring love for one another. As the novel comes to a close, the words "time doesn't stop" pointedly echo in Eddie's mind.
A Widow for One Year, like its predecessor, received generally poor reviews, although it sold an astounding three hundred thousand hardcover copies in the United States alone. Irving's critics largely derided A Widow for One Year for lacking a significant plot in the tradition of his earlier novels. Lewis A. Turlish, in his 1998 review in America, wrote that "while Irving has written a compelling murder mystery, he seems to fear a lapse in intensity. The book abounds in italicized words, creating a style that is hyperactive, hectoring and insistent--like listening to an adolescent's account of his trip to the mall, suffused with an anxiety signaling that you failed to sense the urgency or that you don't get the point. I would have enjoyed the book more without all the shouting." Writing in The Christian Century in 1998, Christopher Bush observed that "Irving's greatest strength always has been creating fascinating, flawed people with whom the reader can identify and sympathize, even when they behave destructively. In this novel, his characters are vibrant, but they stand in need of a compelling theme or plot." Finally, in his 1999 acerbic review on the Canadian television program Hot Type, Tom Wolfe mocked what he perceived to be the overarching inaction in the novel. "At one point" in A Widow for One Year, Wolfe said, Irving's protagonists "leave the house! They get in a car! They're driving through a nearby hamlet . . . and I'm begging them to please stop--park next to the SUVs and German sedans and have a soda at the general store . . . do something--anything."
Irving's next novel, The Fourth Hand (2001), continues to work through the earlier terrain of his career: the dysfunction of human relationships, the tragic and catastropic mishaps all too often born out of such dysfunction, and the ghosts of the past that hover over the lives of those who live in the present. While many reviewers criticized the light tone of the work, this criticism may say more about their expectations for what an Irving novel ought to do than the quality of the work Irving actually produced. The Fourth Hand is undeniably light at times, moving quickly from one grotesquely comic scene to another. But at its heart, the novel is a serious love story about a journalist, Patrick Wallingford, who while in India loses his hand to a lion during a live broadcast, and Doris Clausen, an assistant in ticket sales for the Green Bay Packers, who loses her beer-delivery husband, Otto, when he accidentally shoots himself after the Packers' loss in the Super Bowl. The two are brought together when Patrick opts to become the first American to receive a hand transplant. As the recipient of Otto's hand, Patrick is thrust into a relationship with Doris because of her rather unorthodox insistence that she be allowed visitation rights with her deceased husband's hand. As in much of Irving's fiction, where death intervenes, sex cannot be far behind, and to that end, Doris, who tried unsuccessfully to begin a family with Otto, seduces Patrick before his surgery--a move reminiscent of Jenny Field's seduction of Technical Sergeant Garp in The World According to Garp. Despite the fact that Patrick's body ultimately rejects Otto's hand, Patrick and Doris find in each other an unexpected bond that remains long after the hand is removed. Ultimately, the fourth hand to which the title refers is a hand that does not exist physically. Unlike Otto's transplanted hand, which is rather lifeless, the hand that begins to exist for Patrick after the rejected hand is removed is much more mystical. While not made of corporeal flesh, the hand metaphorically allows Patrick to believe that he may actually touch Doris--a sensation and an intimacy that had eluded Patrick throughout his entire life.
Whether one believes that John Irving's later fiction represents a downward turn in his career, few can doubt that the novelist will continue to refine his craft. Irving's endurance--signaled not just by the volume of his corpus but by the weight of the emotional and philosophical subject matter with which it deals--suggests that his best work may yet lie ahead. As Irving explains in his memoir My Movie Business (1999), "When I feel like being a director, I write a novel. . . . A novelist controls the pace of the book," he continues. "In part, pace is also a function of language, but pace in a novel and in a film can be aided by the emotional investment the reader (or the audience) has in the characters." As Peter Matthiessen notes, Irving's work "has a sense of myth and time and weight and resonance. He's certainly not just 'a good plot man.' He's probably the great storyteller of American literature today."
From: Davis, Todd F., and Kenneth Womack. "John (Winslow) Irving." American Novelists Since World War II: Seventh Series, edited by James R. Giles and Wanda H. Giles, Gale, 2003. Dictionary of Literary Biography Vol. 278.