Life into Art: Novelist John Irving

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admired colleagues as Stanley Elkin and John Gardner. After that he goes on to New York to participate in the editing of Garp footage. He is also working on a short novel based on Ivan Turgenev's First Love. Irving came under the influence of the Russian masters at New Hampshire's Phillips Exeter Academy, where his step father Colin Irving introduced Russian studies to the curriculum.

All this is mere preliminary to the season's main event, the Sept. 30 publication of The Hotel New Hampshire (E.P. Button; $15.50), Irving's fifth novel. Though the first edition numbers 175,000 copies, Button has already ordered a second printing of 100,000. Pocket Books, which sold more than 3 million paperback Garps, has paid $2.3 million for reprint rights to Hotel.

Like Garp, the new book is a startlingly original family saga that combines macabre humor with Dickensian sentiment and outrage at cruelty, dogmatism and injustice. Unlike Garp, Hotel aggressively links realism with the tone and symbolism of fable. Imagine a fairy tale dealing explicitly with rape, incest, prostitution and terrorism. Imagine the Brothers Grimm without the dense mythological overlay.

The new 401-page book grew out of The Pension Grillparzer, the short story that Irving folded into the heart of Garp. That work tells of a father who takes his family to stay in a seedy Viennese hotel. It is home to a rundown Hungarian circus whose members include a shinless man who walks only on his hands and a depressed bear on a unicycle.

The moving force of Hotel New Hampshire is a sweet though dangerous dreamer named Winslow Berry (Harvard, 1946), who transports his household to the city of waltzes and Wittgenstein. There he buys a hotel that is part brothel and part headquarters for nitwit anarchists. Berry has previously failed in this line of work. In the first half of the novel, the superbly elegiac voice of the narrator, Win's son John, describes his father's attempts to convert a second-rate private school in "Dairy, N.H." into the first Hotel New Hampshire. Berry's business decisions include leaving the table and chairs in some of the former classrooms screwed to the floor and not changing the minisinks and kiddie toilets in bathrooms once reserved for the first grades.

To each other, we were as normal and nice as the smell of bread, we were just a family. In a family even exaggerations make perfect sense.

—Hotel New Hampshire

The Berry clan is affectionately bizarre, yet their various fates embody the powerfully personalized truths that tilt the world according to Irving. The cast of characters:

Win Berry. The charming troublemaker begins his career on the New England coast with the purchase of an aging trained bear called State O' Maine and a 1937 Indian motorcycle with sidecar. The seller is a vagabond named Freud, who after World War II lures Win into the Viennese hotel deal. The hapless entrepreneur is blinded by a radical's bomb and winds up at the third Hotel New Hampshire, in Maine, bought by his surviving children. Only the children do not have the heart to tell him that the resort has been turned into a rape crisis center; his life of illusion is thus lovingly preserved.

Mary Berry. Win's wife and mother of his five children. She makes an early exit when her Europe-bound plane crashes into the Atlantic.

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