The Wrestler

John Irving was the quintessential American novelist. Now he's poised to reclaim his title

Ryan Pfluger for TIME

Bear country. Irving at his desk in Vermont. He splits his time between New England and Toronto.

He slaps the side of my head--twice, in quick succession--then hooks a hand behind my neck, and we lean hard into each other, our weight stuttering us one way, then the other. "Keep your elbows in," he says, his breath hot on my face. "Nothing's going to stop me from tearing into you except those elbows." He bullies his chest forward, and I block him with an elbow. "Good."

In a gym in midtown Toronto in February, I am wrestling John Irving. We are surrounded by treadmills, barbells, medicine balls. The floors are padded and the walls mirrored, our reflections grappling...

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