Writers I revere: John Irving
Posted July 23, 2009 by Terry Fallis
After reading almost exclusively nonfiction until I was nearly 30, I switched to fiction around 1988 and haven’t looked back. It was to my great fortune that one of the first novels I picked up, and then could not put down, was John Irving’s A Prayer for Owen Meany. It was a revelation.
I’d been looking for a comic novel, but soon discovered that this was a hybrid. In the same page, I could laugh out loud and then plunge into an emotional abyss. The virtuoso juxtaposition of humour and pathos gave Irving’s words depth and heft. This was no light beach read yet the stretches of melancholy were skillfully and beautifully offset by moments of unalloyed hilarity. I was hooked.
I finished Owen Meany, reluctantly, and then rushed out to purchase every other Irving work I could find. So I moved next to The World According to Garp, which I loved. It had the same offbeat blend of humour and pathos that kept the pages turning well into the wee hours. Then, Hotel New Hampshire. Another great read, though not quite as captivating as Garp and Owen Meany. Then another hit – The Cider House Rules. Loved it.
It seems I’m a sucker for vulnerable, endearing characters on a quest. And can Irving ever write.
But I must confess that the after Cider House Rules, Irving’s next few offerings didn’t quite do it for me. I devoured The Son of the Circus, A Widow for One Year, and The Fourth Hand, but found that they didn’t have the same impact on me as did Garp, Meany, and Cider House. I enjoyed them but wasn’t flattened as I had been by his earlier books. Perhaps I was becoming inured to this master’s writing. No I don’t think so.
Last year, I read his most recent work, Until I Find You, and thoroughly enjoyed it. It felt like I was reading an early Irving novel again.Â Irving has admitted that this is his most autobiographical novel. Again, his familiar formula, brilliantly executed. A young boy coming of age, on a journey replete with twists and turns, ups and downs, humour and emotional body blows, and all written with extraordinary power and subtlety.
Regrettably, there can be many years between Irving novels, which is a very long time for his fans to wait. But the good news is, his latest novel, Last Night in Twisted River, is due to hit bookstore shelves on October 20th. It’s a date that’s marked in my calendar.
Here’s a recent conversation John Irving had with the editor of the New York Times Book Review, Sam Tanenhaus on the NYTBR weekly podcast.
I completely agree with your view of what it is that captivates so in Irving writing. Unlike yuo, the book that really “flattened” me was A Widow for One Year – I read it after being a fan for mny years, and it just blew me away.
Until I Find You is indeed one of his greatest books, and I found many many similarities between it and A Prayer for Owen Meany. They seem to be the same mindset re-written and re-processed 16 years apart.
Don’t forget the early stuff. In Setting Free the Bears, The Water-Method Man (which still makes me laugh and cry as hard as it did 20 readings ago) and the 158-Pound Marriage, we see the first explorations of the themes that Irving has continued to explore. These books were not best-sellers in their time, but if you want to understand and appreciate the rest of the books, you have to go back and savor these.
I’m just “rereading” a bunch of Irving novels in unabridged audio — wonderful to listen to the words again. I, too, am counting the days until Oct. 20th!
Excellent points all, Barbara. Thanks for dropping in…
[…] of Authors (IFOA) here in Toronto. Regular readers of this blog (both of you) may recall that John Irving has been an inspiration to me. The emotional impact of his writing and the laughs along the way make him one of my literary […]
thank you so much for this. i have been an avid fan of John Irving since i read the world according to Garp in 1999. Since then I have bought all his novels that i can find. unfortunately, i live in Nigeria so it will be years before i find his recent books in bookstores. i agree that garp, meany and cider house rules are some of his best books. but i love hotel new Hampshire for the little nuggets of wisdom. however, i have read meany at least 20 times and it still makes me cry and laugh.