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Oh, the things you want/ Are very private/ Private, private,/ Very private. Oh, the only ways there are/ To get them/ Are very public/ Public, public.
Setting Free the Bears
"Mr. Irving? He's a good account," says Robert Fairchild, owner of the Putney General Store at the intersection of Main and Route 5. "He buys his wines heremainly Californiasometimes stops in for a cold drink after jogging. And," says Fairchild, emphasizing how general his store is, "I'm also his tailor." As it turns out, he makes John Irving's dress clothes, fitting the author's 40-in. chest and 32-in. waist with skill and elegance, and charging $300 for a suit that would cost $600 in Boston or New York.
Irving keeps these spiffy outfits for big-city occasions, preferring the local plumage for everyday: jeans, worn flannel shirts and running shoes, as long as there is no snow on the ground. Putney is in extreme southern Vermont, the part that carloads of weekend skiers whiz through on their way to the slopes of Stowe and Sugar bush. In summer, dairymen graze milk herds on the low hills. There are apple orchards, small farms and a nursery that specializes in wild flowers.
Affluent parents of Boston and thereabouts know the town for the Putney School. It has tutored children of the famous, including some Kennedys. The area holds other well-known people, including retired Senator George Aiken, former Ambassador Ellsworth Bunker and Painter Jim Dine. Ted Williams is said to visit an ex-wife occasionally in these parts.
But the style around town is to be underwhelmed by celebrities. Very Yankee. Says General Store Owner Fairchild: "Putney people are closemouthed: they don't advertise."
Certainly not Putney's most famous literary resident. The mailbox at the foot of the road leading to John and Shyla Irving's house is flat black and conspicuously free of lettering. But the sign on the garage at the top of t he road reads THE DOG BITES. He does, too, under the name of Stranger, part shepherd, part Husky, part senile. One whiff of the garage where Stranger lies dreaming is enough to realize who probably inspired Sorrow, the old Labrador.
A snappish dog was unnecessary in the days before Garp. But after his smashing success, Irving's 19th century converted red barn became a target for autograph seekers and scraggly youths offering to do odd jobs for a chance to receive Garpian wisdom at the feet of their reluctant guru. In fact, before Irving's rugged head was known to the nation, the author was a Putney person who did advertise.
After his first novel, Setting Free the Bears, was published, Irving's Volvo carried vanity plates bearing the single word FROT. It was a mispronunciation of a familiar four-letter sexual expletive that was used throughout the book by a lunatic European. Says the author in his clean, tight accent: "I lived in Putney for ten years, and people would keep coming up to me and saying, 'What does that mean?' That was a way of revealing to me that they had not read