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As the son of a faculty member, Irving felt the need to uphold high standards of behavior. As captain of the school wrestling team he piled up points. His grades were another matter. Though Irving excelled in history and English, math, science and foreign languages pulled him down to a C-minus average. It took him five years to get through Exeter. Still, by the time he graduated at 19, he knew what he wanted: to continue wrestling and to write novels. At the time they were difficult ambitions.
Rejected by the University of Wisconsin, he went to the University of Pittsburgh, "because of the coach." But outside of New England, the collegiate lightweight found the competition too stiff. After a dispiriting year, he left for the University of New Hampshire at Durham, only ten miles from Exeter. "I felt that I had not got anywhere," he says. In fact, he had come to the right place. The English faculty included a young Southern novelist named John Yount (Wolf at the Door, The Trapper's Last Shot), who told the restless student with the broad shoulders and burning brown eyes what he wanted to hear. "It was so simple," Irving remembers. " Yount was the first person to point out to me that anything I did except writing was going to be vaguely unsatisfying."
The advice was timely; Irving was fast on his way to being an angry and violent young man. He would go to a working-class Durham bar dressed in preppie clothes and wearing glasses. Sitting quietly with a beer and a book, he would wait for someone to tease and push him around. Then, he says, "I'd tie them up in knots and leave them on the floor." The game lasted until one victim's girlfriend knocked him cold with a napkin holder.
By 1963 it was time to move on. Irving left U.N.H. and enrolled at the Institute of European Studies in Vienna, which he chose because it sounded more exotic than London, Paris or Madrid. "It is good," he says, "for a writer to go to a place where everything is novel, where you can't even take the butter for granted, where the mayonnaise comes in a tube instead of a jar, where you are made to notice even the trivial thingsespecially the trivial things."
Before going abroad, Irving took a course in German at a Harvard summer session. There he also learned the language of love. At a Cambridge party, the expatriate-in-training met Shyla Leary, a tall, dark-haired student of engineering and physics at Radcliffe. Says Shyla: "I was going out with a Saltonstall at the time. But I passed a bedroom and saw John alone sitting in his shorts and playing a banjo. I said to myself, 'That's for me.' " She had to wait a few months to get him.
At Vienna, Irving studied more German, wrote Shyla and began a novel about third-rate cowboys who stage a ridiculous rodeo in New England. The young writer had little experience in that arena; he was once dragged around by a steer for more than five minutes before he was finally able to bring the animal down. But the novel got away from him and eventually he abandoned it.