John Winslow Irving—born John Wallace Blunt, Jr.— has the rare distinction of having achieved both critical acclaim and huge commercial success. He sprang from relative obscurity to fame with The World According to Garp, which became a best-seller, received the American Book Award as the best paperback novel of 1979, and was made into a film, starring Robin Williams, in 1982. His next novel, The Hotel New Hampshire, was also a best-seller and adapted for the screen.
Irving was born to Frances Winslow Irving, and in 1961 he graduated from Phillips Exeter Academy (the school became the model for the Steering School in The World According to Garp), where his stepfather, Colin F. N. Irving, was treasurer and instructor of Russian history. There he was a much better wrestler than he was a student; in fact, wrestling also became a recurrent metaphor in his writing. He attended the University of Pittsburgh and the University of Vienna, Austria, before his graduation cum laude in 1965 from the University of New Hampshire. In 1967 he received an M.F.A. from the University of Iowa, where he studied with the novelists Vance Bourjaily and Kurt Vonnegut, Jr.
Irving’s years as a bohemian student in Vienna, in 1963 and 1964, informed his first novel, Setting Free the Bears. Caged or trained bears are one of the strongest motifs in his fiction, a central image associated with primal nature, wildness, and the soul. In this darkly picaresque novel of the 1960’s, the popular ideal of freedom is expressed by a plot to set free all the animals in the Vienna Zoo, where a spectrum of primal human nature is suggested by the contrast between timid Rare Spectacled Bears and brutal Famous Asiatic Bears. Underlying this and all Irving’s novels is World War II, when the Prussian bear was released by Adolf Hitler.
In 1963, while taking a summer course in German at Harvard University, Irving met Shyla Leary, a student at Radcliffe and a painter who later became a professional photographer. In August of 1964 they were married in Greece, and they subsequently had two sons, Colin and Brendan. Family became the center of value in Irving’s vision. His comic novel The Water-Method Man is about a doctoral student in literature at the University of Iowa named Bogus, who loses his family through his own folly, then matures in part through a trip to Vienna, where he learns lessons in the dark realities of history and human nature—something that happens recurrently in Irving’s novels. In The 158-Pound Marriage the narrator, a novelist and university teacher, loses his family through an experiment in mate swapping. Two of the sexual foursome come from Vienna and three end up there, leaving the American narrator behind, ironically, as the least perceptive of the four. Throughout his fiction Irving shatters middle-class illusions of security with violence, pain, and sudden death, while...
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