(Literary Masterpieces, Critical Compilation)

Published within two years after John Irving’s eighth novel, A Son of the Circus (1994), Trying to Save Piggy Sneed assembles bits and pieces from Irving’s literary career, together with “end pieces” appended to each excerpt as the collection was assembled for publication. Divided into three sections, “Memoirs,” “Fiction,” and “Homage,” the collection opens with the short title piece, in which Irving reflects perceptively on the interweaving of truth and fiction as it relates to the writer’s art and craft. “Being a writer,” he observes, “is a strenuous marriage between careful observation and just as carefully imagining the truths you haven’t had an opportunity to see.”

Initially published during 1982 in The New York Times Book Review, “Trying to Save Piggy Sneed” evokes the dignified figure of the author’s grandmother, Helen Bates Winslow, who was, at that time, “the oldest living English Literature major to have graduated from Wellesley.” As Irving recalls in his endnote, Mrs. Winslow died shortly thereafter, just shy of her one hundredth birthday. In the memoir, however, she looms large as an inspiration for her grandson, regardless of the fact that she disapproved of both the language and the subject- matter of his first novel and refused to read the four that followed before she became too infirm to read. Specifically, it is to his grandmother’s kindness toward a wretched, retarded garbage collector best known as “Piggy” Sneed that Irving credits his eventual vocation as a writer.

As recalled by the mature author, Piggy Sneed emerges as a prototypical background character for a John Irving novel—deprived, grotesque, possibly degenerate. In Exeter, New Hampshire, where Irving grew to maturity, Sneed, whose retardation apparently robbed him of speech, was paid to collect garbage that he in turn used to feed his pigs, some of which rode with him on his rounds. Proximity to the pigs, with whom he shared the barn, imparted to Sneed distinctly porcine attitudes and gestures, along with a commonly shared foul odor. Predictably, Sneed was the butt of childhood jokes among Irving and his friends, a perpetual laughingstock, yet Mrs. Winslow treated the poor creature with unfailing politeness, vainly trying to entice him into speech as she paid his bills by complimenting him on his pigs. As Irving moved from childhood into adolescence, he and several of his friends joined the volunteer fire department, learning also of Sneed’s fondness for strong drink as the fire equipment swerved to avoid his weaving, reeking garbage truck. Sneed’s pig farm, meanwhile, was a familiar, stinking landmark for the firemen until the night that it burned to the ground, so violently that the fire trucks had to be parked some distance away to avoid blistering the paint or blowing the tires. Irving, still in his teens, tried to imagine, and to persuade his friends, that the hapless pig farmer had somehow escaped the carnage, having set the fire to cover his departure for Florida, or perhaps for Europe. As he spoke, Irving recalls, he was inventing the first story of his career; later, he would tell his grandmother Winslow how his verbal narrative, grounded in her own humane treatment of Sneed, had helped determine his career as a writer, to which Mrs. Winslow replied, “You surely could have saved yourself a lot of bother, if you’d only treated Mr. Sneed with a little human decency when he was alive.” The author’s conclusion: “Failing that, I realize that a writer’s business is setting fire to Piggy Sneed—andtrying to save him—again and again; forever.”

The second, longest memoir in the collection, enigmatically entitled “The Imaginary Girlfriend,” at times approaches full-fledged autobiography. Written more than a dozen years after the Piggy Sneed piece, “The Imaginary Girlfriend” fills in certain details of Irving’s youth as a “faculty brat” and student at Phillips Exeter Academy, where he first learned both to write and to wrestle; over the years to follow, both writing and wrestling would come to dominate Irving’s life. Accepting the fact of limited athletic ability, Irving compensated with talent and technical skill to become proficient in the sport, emerging also as one of wrestling’s more eloquent scholars and apologists. Almost sheepishly, Irving explains that he would never have qualified for admission to Exeter save for his status as “faculty brat”; he was deemed a slow learner, the dyslexia from which he suffered being neither diagnosed nor fully understood. In time, however, Irving grew as fond of reading and writing as of wrestling, pursuing those three activities pretty much to the exclusion of all else. The memoir’s title derives from the explanation that he devised in order to justify to his coach his transfer from the University of Pittsburgh to the University of New Hampshire, near his home in Exeter: There was no girlfriend, at least not at the time; Irving simply could not tell the man that he was tired of being a “backup” wrestler.

While at the University of New Hampshire, Irving heeded the advice of one of his professors to study abroad for a year, specifically in Vienna. As...

(The entire section is 2140 words.)