Frontlines

John Irving adjusts: is there life after Garp?

Lawrence O’Toole June 11 1979
Frontlines

John Irving adjusts: is there life after Garp?

Lawrence O’Toole June 11 1979

John Irving adjusts: is there life after Garp?

Frontlines

Lawrence O’Toole

Outside the offices of Pocket Books in New York two buses creep along in the noon-hour traffic. On the side of one of them is a banner that reads BELIEVE IN GARP; on the side of the other is another, GARP IS FUNNY.

Garp is writer T.S. Garp of John Irving’s wildly comic and equally melancholic novel, The World According to Garp, last year’s literary sensation —a serious novel by a relative unknown that sold over 100,000 in hard-back. A rare bird if ever. A year later the paperback Garp, with over two million varicolored copies in print, is perched atop the best-seller list. Garp has become a pop sensation, entering the common consciousness the way only a few books (The Catcher in the Rye, Catch-22) have done. Garp himself is wellnigh a national hero—a guru for the troubled times the book describes. A lot of people have written to Garp’s creator, telling tales of how the book helped them in their own crises; some have even showed up0 on his doorstep with theirl bundle of troubles. ;

Inside the offices of>

Pocket Books, John Irving,w 37, shows off his implacable New England origins. When he gets angry at something, which he often does, he will flare his nostrils and spice his speech with expletives. He will lead you to believe that he does not have opinions: he has, instead, strong beliefs. He will say he is not an intellectual. He will also say that he is not interesting himself, only that his work is: “I’ve never done anything else terribly well. I was not an especially good student. I was a decent wrestler.” Like Garp.

NO! Though much of his own life dovetails superficially with Garp’s, Irving insists he isn’t Garp. He loathes autobiographical fiction. He lives in Putney,

Vermont, in a converted barn with his wife and two children. What he does there, he makes perfectly clear, is nobody’s business: he’s not about to invite readers—who are strangers—into his

home. Neither fame nor fortune has fattened his optimism. The world’s still not a safe place.

In the world according to Garp and his creator, we are all terminal cases. We go through life losing things: limbs, looks, memory, hair, mental powers, keys and people. Eventually we become the sum of our missing parts. Then we die. It’s an unforgiving view of the world, though not necessarily an inaccurate one. Garp is a parade of maimings and loss (an eye, a tongue, part of an ear, part of a penis, many lives),

monitoring the world’s madnesses. Garp and his famous feminist mother, Jenny Fields, because of their irrefragable individuality, are inevitably assassinated. “Of course,” says Irving in an eastern seaboard accent so broad you could steer a yawl through it, “terrible things happen. But they’re no excuse not to live purposefully and well.”

The sentiment, which goes all the way back to Plymouth Rock, governs Irving’s life. Eschewing the cult of celebrity to which Garp is a carte blanche invitation, he has instead hunkered down and produced 180 pages of his next novel, The Hotel New Hampshire, due next year.

Serious-minded, cautiously affable and occasionally verbally impotent with rage, Irving hurls his ire at the world and its arrant stupidities. A kind of Puritan indignation informs his tone. He hunches his stocky, wrestler’s frame into a ball of tension and shadowboxes with words when they won’t make the absolute sense he wants them to make. He likes talking and he likes doing it without interruption. Financial fears allayed (he had to teach to support his family while writing Garp and the three books before that—Setting Free the Bears, The Water-Method Man, The 158-Pound Marriage), he devotes as much time as he wants for what he likes doing best. “I work now like a banker. I mean I work on hours really, and if I make plans, say if I have something to do at one o’clock and I’m in the middle of a good scene and it’s 12:45, then I have something to do at one and I do it. In the old days I would fear I would lose the scene. I do more thinking before I write now anyway. I plan ahead.”

Recently, Irving had published in Esquire part of an address to the graduating class of the school where he taught. He wrote: “We define ourselves, at least

in part, by plans we make for ourselves—even if we can’t keep them.

And we grow, at least in part, out of the necessity of making new plans.” But Irving’s credo got messed about:

“I’m not speaking to anybody at Esquire for what they did to the title [Life After Graduation According

to Garp]. They can get enough f------

mileage out of my name now without advertising Garp." Vogue did a similar switch on another piece titled Why We Need Solzhenitsyn, which they published as What It's Like to Have a Best Seller. “I got taken for a ride there,” he says glumly. Both pieces were originally written for a regular column Life wanted him to do. “ ‘We really like your voice, we really want to tap that voice,’ they said to me. But they sent me back each piece. I wrote back and asked what was the matter with my voice. ‘Well, it’s not quite our voice,’ they said.”

Irving’s mistrust of the world and its ways isn’t totally unfounded. For example, the sociological reading of Garp, that it was written by a child of the ’60s, bugs the hell out of him. “A lot of reviewers said that Mr. Irving is responding to the ’60s . . . blah blah blah . . . especially in the area of assassinations and the moral, political and sexual chaos of our time. I think of myself as being thoroughly out of it personally. I’m not without political opinions but I’ve really lived quite solely an imaginary life. I don’t understand how things work .. . money, government. I’ve never voted. Not because I don’t believe in it but because I don’t think about it. And because I don’t know enough about it to do it well.”

The individual vision, according to Irving, doesn’t hurt anyone. That’s why he admires writers like Hardy, Dickens and friend Kurt Vonnegut Jr. “They go all the way with what they see. I admire that. That’s why I admire Hardy. He’s stern, relentless and even clumsy. He says ‘I’m going to make you see it this way no matter how long it takes.’ Writers like that insist on the world according to them.” And writers like that are good storytellers. “Exclusiveness and serious literature is an old peeve of mine. I take entertainment to be an esthetic responsibility of a writer. I think the hardest thing to do is to be easy to read. I don’t feel that serious novels have a licence to bore anyone. But I think fiction in our present decade has moved in a direction that frightens me. For example, you almost have to be a contemporary poet to understand half of the poetry now being written. I find

that has an off-putting exclusiveness about it, as though it were saying art is not for everyone.”

He calls his own fiction extremist. And though Garp is populated by people who may not exist in the real world, such as the Ellen Jamesians who cut out their tongues to protest rape, they can be found in the real world, in different guises. “I think of what I did in Garp as taking something real and taking it to a

logical extreme. I wanted to make people who were extremely lovable and visit upon them the worst things I could imagine. It’s an old soap-opera principle: you learn to love and care for the characters. Roberta [Muldoon, former tight end for the Philadelphia Eagles] was my test character. I felt that if I could take a transsexual and make her seem like everybody’s best friend—just a good old boy—then I succeeded.

“Garp is not bizarre to me. I think it’s the way things are. I’m appalled, for example, at the stupidity of the reaction to the Guyana thing. What the f— do we expect? I mean it’s no surprise to me that all those people drink Kool-Aid on command. One journal that characterized my book as going to excesses wanted to know if I would like to cover

the Guyana slayings because it was right up my alley. It was my kind of thing, you know. That offends me.” His nostrils flare like an angry steed’s. “The moral outrage that blasted the front of every paper with body counts and stench—well, one really did have a feeling the media loved it. They couldn’t get enough of it. And it’s at that precise moment if you told a joke, it’s the people who understand least what happens to

other people today who would be most unsympathetic to a joke. The only thing one can do in that situation is tell one of the sickest jokes one can think of, really.”

Irving’s brand of gallows humor is, he says, “a kind of consolation” for the things that happen to us. His editor, Henry Robbins, attributes Garp’s success to “its basic affectionate tone, similar to The Catcher in the Rye. It’s about the danger we all go through in daily life and it’s not sentimental.” Robbins knew -Garp was going to be a best seller after he read the first three chapters of Lunacy and Sorrow (the book’s former title; some people in the business thought the present title wouldn’t sell). Robbins is surprised and disappointed that Garp didn’t win the National Book Award.

But to John Irving all that matters is getting along with the business of

living, which is mostly writing. “It may sound simplistic, but you just gotta tell the truth—even though a novel is a bunch of on-the-other-hand musings. And I feel that a very moral responsibility of any novelist is to write about people as we think they are, not as we think they should be. I’m very much against moralistic fiction. I hate political fiction with a passion. Fiction is more sacred than politics. It lasts longer and it’s less hysterical. In the book I wanted to make Garp and Jenny as personal and as individual as possible and then have them assassinated by a kind of group thinking. I’ve always thought that assassination was morally indefensible. It’s hideous because it’s so intellectual.”

His feelings about personal feminism are equally assertive. “I remember reading with terrific indignation a review of a book by Gail Godwin [a friend of Irving’s]. Clearly a feminist, as any intelligent woman should be, she still can’t be described as a writer of feminist novels. This reviewer said that Miss Godwin was a terribly good writer—as if this were a given!—but said that these kinds of women were not the kind we need to know about today. You can only think, only imagine, if someone like that were reviewing Virginia Woolf’s Mrs. Dalloway. What the f— would they have said about that?”

He hasn’t lost his anger; the plaid shirt, immaculate denim and argyle socks are deceptive. And success, as gargantuan as it has been, hasn’t cooled his cynicism. Which is why he’s gearing up > for an onslaught of criticism against his ; next book. “Every failed writer believes £ a successful one has sold out. I hope I’m w wrong, but let’s face it—quite regardless of whether The Hotel New Hampshire is a good book or not, it will be largely put down.” He feels the whole world is watching. Will he be able to sustain the success? Will people expect another Garp? “This will be no Garp,” he insists. “But people who didn’t read Garp until after all the fanfare might come down on it. Reviewers who couldn’t get their hooks into Garp might use this one to say what an overrated piece of s— Garp was. Whatever I write will be caught in a spiral. But that’s an enviable position to be in. So what?”

Henry Miller wrote in Tropic of Cancer that “art consists in going the full length.” That could, in part, define John Irving and his New England tenacity. The Hotel New Hampshire will doubtless be the world according to John Irving, who’ll still be calling them as he sees them.tÿ