Life into Art: Novelist John Irving

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fun and games. Many readers were offended by Irving's mating of the truly tragic and grotesquely comic, by the car crash that kills little Walt and removes Michael Milton's penis, by Roberta Muldoon, the transsexual football player, and the Ellen Jamesians, the radical feminist group whose members cut out their tongues to protest rape. Among those with reservations was the author's mother. Says Frances Irving: "There are parts of Garp that are too explicit for me." Literary heroes like T.S. Garp and John Berry of Hotel New Hampshire challenge social dogmas and traditional sexual roles. Although they sleep with women and could flatten most opponents, Garp and Berry are mother-men. They nurture and protect an extended family of offspring with the tenacity of a she-bear.

Garp/Berry/Irving's philosophy is basic stuff: one must live willfully, purposefully and watchfully. Accidents, bad luck, underloads and open windows lurk everywhere—and the dog really bites. It is only a matter of time. Nobody gets out alive, yet few want to leave early. Irving's popularity is not hard to understand. His world is really the world according to nearly everyone.

It is only the vividness of memory that keeps the dead alive forever. A writer's job is to imagine everything so personally that the fiction is as vivid as our personal memories.


Fall will soon come to New England. Tourists will arrive to witness the splendid death of leaves. The first fires will turn back the night chill, and woodpiles will begin their slow decline toward spring. Upstairs, in his study over the kitchen, John Irving will be wrestling Turgenev's ghost. —By R.Z. Sheppard

A Sampler from Irving's New Novel

It was an up-and-down day at the Hotel New Hampshire, getting ready for New Year's Eve: I remember that something more pronounced than even the usual weave of silliness and sadness seemed to hang over us all, as if we'd be conscious, from time to time, of hardly mourning for Iowa Bob at all—and conscious, at other times, that our most necessary responsibility (not just in spite of but because Iowa Bob) was to have fun. It was perhaps our first test of a dictum passed down to my father from old Iowa Bob himself; it was a dictum Father preached to us, over and over again. It was so familiar to us, we wouldn't dream of not behaving as if we believed it, although we probably never knew—until much later—whether we believed it or not.

The dictum was connected with Iowa Bob's theory that we were all on a big ship—"on a big cruise, across the world." And in spite of the danger of being swept away, at any time, or perhaps because of the danger, we were not allowed to be depressed or unhappy. The way the world worked was not cause for some sort of blanket cynicism or sophomoric despair; according to my father and Iowa Bob, the way the world worked—which was badly—was just a strong incentive to live purposefully, and to be determined about riving well.

"Happy fatalism," Frank would speak of their philosophy, later; Frank, as a troubled youth, was not a believer.

And one night, when we were watching a wretched melodrama on the TV above the bar in the Hotel New Hampshire, my mother said, "I don't want to see the end of this. I like

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