Life into Art: Novelist John Irving

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Europe offered Irving a large slice of the bohemian life. He explored by car and motorcycle, met painters and poets, worked out in gyms with burly grapplers who grunted in Slavic. He also met a man with an old trained bear, an animal that would prowl his future books.

An Irving bear is a pathetic creature whose strength and dignity are ridiculed by its overriding need to perform. Explains the author: "They have become good at learning tricks to amuse people, but they have been reduced to a shadow show, like so many people who have been taught the most arduous skills that most of us find silly—like writing, reading and even wrestling."

The central caper of Setting Free the Bears, Irving's picaresque first novel, is a plot to release all the animals from the Vienna Zoo. The book was written and rewritten between 1965 and 1967 at the University of Iowa's Writers' Workshop. The impassioned, charging prose announced the arrival of a fresh talent:

" 'You're free to go!' I screamed. 'Why don't you? Don't ask for too much!' And responding to my voice was what sounded like the utter demolishment of the Biergarten. I pelted down there, through a crunchy dust of Uttered ashtrays. This was a primate sort of destruction, for sure; a vandalism of a shocking, human type. They had shattered the one-time funhouse mirror; chunks of it lay all over the Biergarten terrace. I kept looking down at my puzzlework reflection, looming over myself.

" 'Just one more and that does me,' I said. And moved to the reeking cage of the Rare Spectacled Bears, who were hiding behind their drinking-and-dunking pool when I opened their cage. I had to shout at them to make them come out. They came shoulder to shoulder across the floor, heads lowered like whipped dogs. They turned circles through the destroyed Biergarten, running too close together and butting themselves into umbrellas and hissing monkeys.

"This is enough, I thought. Enough, for sure. And I was winding through the other, roaring bear cages when Gallen screamed, Schrutt's out! I thought. But when I squinted through cage corners and down the dark paths toward the Small Mammal House, I saw a man-shaped figure, loping more or less on all fours, turn the corner by the Monkey Complex—followed by another just like him, though not as thick in the chest. The orangutan and the lowland gorilla, in cahoots."

One of the first to read, and like, the manuscript was an older struggling writer who was teaching there: Kurt Vonnegut. "A dear, dear man," says Irving of his longtime friend, "enormously decent, generous and wise." By this time John was married to Shyla, had a son and was just about making ends meet by bartending in Iowa City and selling peanuts and banners at college football games. In The Water-Method Man, a wily spoof of academe, he offered a forlorn description of the job: "I lug a large plywood board from gate to gate around the stadium. The board is wide and tippy with an easel-type stand; the wind blows it down; tiny gold footballs are scratched, buttons chip, pennants wrinkle and smudge. I get a commission: 10% of what I sell." In the fall of 1967 the family moved to Putney, where the young father took a post teaching English at Windham College, which is now defunct.

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