John Irving

Colorful, Complicated Characters Inhabit Worlds By Turns Domestic, Surreal, and Absurd.

In other words, realism. In my opinion, often it is only through the particulars of an artist’s vision that we can begin to delve into the irrational motivations, tendencies, and quirks that many of us (and our culture) have but which (at least until the explosion of social media) we wisely keep hidden.

Caryn James, in the New York Times said of Irving, “He is more than popular. He is a populist, determined to keep alive the Dickensian tradition that revels in colorful set pieces, blubbers with sentimentality, finds depth in cartoonish characters and teaches moral lessons.”

I read many of Irving’s books when I was in my teens, and no doubt they had an influence on the twisted tree trunk of my developing mind, especially Garp, which I found disturbing and utterly compelling. Even at a tender age, I had no problem believing in the bizarre realities shot through with random violence and sexuality created by Irving.

Using humor, social commentary, and rollicking inventiveness, John Irving crafts stories at once entertaining, iconoclastic, and deeply compassionate toward the human condition. And then there are the bears… needless to say, at the Metaphysical Circus we love bears, and want them all freed.

I’ve got A Son of the Circus sitting on my shelf, waiting to be read, and I’m looking forward to it. In the meantime, here are some of my favorite books by John Irving:

Setting Free the Bears    

From the inside flap: “It is 1967 and two Viennese university students want to liberate the Vienna Zoo, as was done after World War II. But their good intentions have both comic and gruesome consequences, in this first novel written by a twenty-five year old John Irving, already a master storyteller.”

Young, idealistic, quirky characters on a  mission. Good clean fun.

The Hotel New Hampshire (Ballantine Reader's Circle)

From the Inside Flap: “‘The first of my father’s illusions was that bears could survive the life lived by human beings, and the second was that human beings could survive a life led in hotels.’ So says John Berry, son of a hapless dreamer, brother to a cadre of eccentric siblings, and chronicler of the lives lived, the loves experienced, the deaths met, and the myriad strange and wonderful times encountered by the family Berry. Hoteliers, pet-bear owners, friends of Freud (the animal trainer and vaudevillian, that is), and playthings of mad fate, they “dream on” in a funny, sad, outrageous, and moving novel by the remarkable author of A Widow for One Year and The Cider House Rules.”

 The World According to Garp

From the inside flap: “The World According to Garp is a comic  and compassionate coming-of-age novel that established John Irving as one of the most imaginative writers of his generation. A worldwide bestseller since its publication in 1978, Irving’s classic is filled with stories inside stories about the life and times of T. S. Garp, novelist and bastard son of Jenny Fields–a feminist leader ahead of her time. Beyond that, The World According to Garp virtually defies synopsis.”

For me,  The World According to Garp is dark and hilarious, moving and infuriating. The characters are irrational and perfectly believable, self-absorbed and yet sympathetic. It’s about the chaos and violence that lurks beneath the veneer of domesticity and normalcy for many people, and for our cultural as a whole.

 A Prayer for Owen Meany    

From the publisher: “In the summer of 1953, two eleven-year-old boys—best friends—are playing in a Little League baseball game in Gravesend, New Hampshire. One of the boys hits a foul ball that kills the other boy’s mother. The boy who hits the ball doesn’t believe in accidents; Owen Meany believes he is God’s instrument. What happens to Owen after that 1953 foul ball is extraordinary.”

This is a story that explores the questions of fate vs. chance, God vs. random design by Owen’s friend, and the narrator, Johnny Wheelwright. Owen sees God in everything, despite his physical deformities, despite being the instrument of death for Johnny’s mother, a woman whom he loved. It is suggested that Owen may be more than a human being. Johnny, on the other hand, struggles through life, more observer than participant, as he tells the story of his dynamic friend. A Prayer for Owen Meany is a moving mediation on faith vs. doubt.

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