John Irving 1942–
American novelist, short story writer, essayist, and memoirist.
The following entry presents an overview of Irving's career through 1996. For further information on his life and works, see CLC, Volumes 13, 23, and 38.
Upon the publication of his bestseller The World According to Garp (1978), also adapted into a Hollywood film, Irving emerged as a major literary figure. The enormous success of The Hotel New Hampshire (1980) fortified his reputation as a writer whose novels bridge the gap between literature and mainstream fiction. Influenced by the sprawling, plot-driven novels of Victorian authors such as Charles Dickens, Irving's intricately developed, multilevel stories are permeated by dark comedy, perverse irony, and bizarre violence that underscore the dangerous uncertainty of human life and the erosion of conventional values in modern society. The popularity of subsequent novels—The Cider House Rules (1985), A Prayer for Owen Meany (1989), and A Son of the Circus (1994)—brought further praise for what critics describe as memorable characters, absorbing plots, and sardonic social satire.
Born John Winslow Irving in Exeter, New Hampshire, Irving was the oldest of four children. Irving attended Phillips Exeter Academy, a boys' prep school where his father taught Russian history and where, as a member of the team, Irving developed a lifelong passion for wrestling. A mediocre student and undiagnosed dyslexic, Irving soon realized his desire to become a writer. After graduating from Exeter in 1961, he studied briefly at the University of Pittsburgh and the University of Vienna before settling at the University of New Hampshire, from which he received a bachelor's degree in 1965. He married his first wife, Shyla Leary, in 1964, with whom he shares two sons. His first publication, the short story "A Winter Branch," appeared in Redbook magazine in 1965. Irving attended the famed University of Iowa Writers Workshop, where he studied with novelists Vance Bourjaily and Kurt Vonnegut, earning a Masters in Fine Arts in 1967. Over the next two years, Irving worked as an assistant professor of English at Windham College in Putney, Vermont, while completing his first novel, Setting Free the Bears (1969). He then returned to Vienna for several years to work on a film version of the novel which was never released.
With the aid of a Rockefeller Foundation grant in 1971–72, Irving completed his second novel, The Water-Method Man (1972). From 1972 to 1975 he was a writer-in-residence and visiting lecturer at the University of Iowa while working on his third novel, The 158-Pound Marriage (1974). He was awarded a National Endowment for the Arts fellowship in 1974–75 and named a Guggenheim fellow in 1976–77. In 1975. Irving worked as an assistant professor of English at Mount Holyoke College while writing The World According to Garp. With the overwhelming success of Garp, including an American Book Award and nomination for the National Book Award, Irving earned enough to abandon teaching for full-time writing. His first three novels were soon republished together as Three by Irving (1980) and his next novel, The Hotel New Hampshire, was a Book-of-the-Month selection and instant bestseller. The World According to Garp and The Hotel New Hampshire were also adapted into major motion pictures in 1982 and 1984 respectively. Irving's subsequent novels, The Cider House Rules. A Prayer for Owen Meany, and A Son of the Circus were similarly greeted by critical approval and an eager popular audience. Irving has also published a volume of short stories and essays, Trying to Save Piggy Sneed (1996), and a memoir, An Imaginary Girlfriend (1996). Divorced from his first wife in 1981, Irving married Janet Turnball in 1987.
Irving's structurally complex fiction revolves around the misadventures of eccentric characters involved in tragicomic searches for self-identity and meaning. Their stories are often punctuated by inexplicable violence, maiming, and death, suggesting the absurdity of good intentions in the face of fate and bad luck. Through the misfortunes and comic reversals of his characters, Irving addresses serious social concerns surrounding the family, sexuality, gender relations, and the relationship between life and art. Several recurring motifs and narrative techniques characterize his work, notably the presence of bears, prep schools, wrestlers, Vienna, rape, illegitimate children, and the incorporation of family histories, journal entries, letters, flashbacks, and multiple perspectives to present the story. Setting Free the Bears begins with the picaresque travels of two bohemian students—narrator Hannes Graff and Siegfried Javotnick, or Siggy—as they traverse Austria on motorcycle. The second half of the novel, completed by Hannes after Siggy's accidental death, consists of excerpts from Siggy's journal that detail his family's suffering under Nazi and Russian oppression and Siggy's plot to free the animals at the Vienna Zoo, a gesture intended to avenge his European ancestors. The Water-Method Man follows the disappointments of Fred "Bogus" Trumper, an endearing, though equivocal, husband, boyfriend, and doctoral candidate who struggles against boredom to translate an Old Low Norse epic poem. Trumper relates his despair through reflection on his failed marriage, fear of commitment to his pregnant girlfriend, and a friend's production of a film about himself with a less-than-optimistic title. The title of the novel refers to Trumper's treatment for a painful urinary tract ailment which becomes a metaphor for his ceaseless discomfort and dread. The 158-Pound Marriage reveals the disastrous effect of an ill-conceived mate-swapping scheme involving two married couples. Though initiated with the promise of honesty and guiltless pleasure, the adulterous relationships among the four participants soon degenerate into a source of acrimonious sexual jealousy and emotional pain. The World According to Garp recounts the life of T. S. Garp from his illegitimate conception to his untimely death. Raised by Jenny Fields, a nurse and renowned feminist whose autobiography attracts a devoted following, Garp becomes a high school wrestling champion, marries a local sweetheart with whom he has two children, and writes several modestly successful novels. After mutual infidelities, including one that inadvertently leads to the death of their youngest son and the sexual mutilation of his wife's lover, Garp befriends a transsexual ex-football player, adopts a young rape victim, and is finally assassinated by a feminist extremist. The Hotel New Hampshire, a family saga beginning in 1939, follows three decades of the troubled Berry family, headed by Win Berry and his wife, Mary, proprietors of three hotels in New Hampshire, Vienna, and Maine. The narrator, John Berry, is the middle child of five, including Frank, Franny, Lilly, and Egg. Violence and the grotesque dominate the novel: Franny is raped by prep school football players, then engages in a brief incestuous affair with brother John; Lilly, a dwarf and blocked author, commits suicide; their grandfather, Iowa Bob, is literally scared to death when their taxidermically preserved dog. Sorrow, falls out of a closet; Mary and Egg die in a plane crash en route to Vienna. Despite successive tragedies and personal crises, the family remains a positive source of collective strength and resiliency. The Cider House Rules recounts the work of Dr. Wilbur Larch, an ether-addicted obstetrician, between the 1890s and mid-twentieth century. His Maine orphanage, St. Cloud, doubles as a clinic for safe, illegal abortions. Though Dr. Larch does not encourage abortion among his patients, he recognizes the dismal plight of his parentless charges and grooms one orphan, Homer Wells, to succeed his medical practice at St. Cloud. Homer later abandons the orphanage for work at Ocean View Orchard, where he becomes involved in a love triangle and fathers a daughter. The title of the novel refers to a list of regulations intended to guide the behavior of the orchard workers, symbolizing the coercive, hypocritical rules of society that are better defied or ignored. A Prayer for Owen Meany, steeped in Protestant theology and New Testament allusions and set in a quaint New England town, relates the unusual friendship between John Wheelwright, an illegitimate child who seeks the identity of his biological father, and Owen Meany, an undersized Christ-figure distinguished by his belief in predestination and irritating high-pitched voice—his dialogue in the novel is rendered in all capital letters. Owen accidentally kills John's mother with a foul baseball, discovers his death date in a vision during a school production of A Christmas Carol, and converts John to Christianity through the example of his extraordinary sacrifice. The film Simon Birch, released in 1998, was "suggested" by A Prayer for Owen Meany and was created with Irving's blessing, although many important elements of the story were changed. As in much of Irving's previous fiction, A Son of the Circus involves a large cast of quirky characters and unusual circumstances. The novel features Dr. Farrokh Daruwalla, an Indian-born orthopedic surgeon who lives in Toronto, anonymously writes screenplays for popular crime films, and periodically returns to Bombay to work in a children's hospital and to study the genetics of dwarfism among Indian circus clowns. Rife with subplots and tangential excursions, the story essentially revolves around the long-unsolved murder of an Indian golfer.
Irving is considered among the most imaginative and entertaining contemporary American novelists since Kurt Vonnegut and Joseph Heller. An exceptional storyteller whose intelligent novels appeal to both academic and mainstream readers alike, Irving dismisses any demarcation between high literature and popular fiction and asserts the primacy of plot and content over style. An admirer of Dickens and Thomas Hardy, both of whom wrote for mass audiences, Irving is praised for his remarkable ability to immerse large casts of engaging characters in unpredictable plots imbued with provocative contemporary issues such as feminism, sexuality, and religion. As many critics note, his work effectively merges the realism and morality of the conventional novel with the sophisticated metafictional techniques of postmodern writers, especially through the frequent use of texts within texts and flashbacks. Though most critics applaud Irving's unsettling juxtaposition of life-affirming compassion and macabre brutality, others find fault in elements of melodrama and his sensational depiction of explicit sex and excessive violence. While The World According to Garp is generally considered his finest work, Irving has received considerable critical approval for his earlier novels, particularly The Water-Method Man, as well as The Hotel New Hampshire and The Cider House Rules.