John Irving gives me the courage to be weird.
For an adult who writes novels, I spent my high school years largely baffled by literature. Don’t get me wrong – I got good grades in my English classes, but it wasn’t until I was well into my senior year of high school that I really got excited about literature and fiction writing. I also started what would become my first novel during that time. When it came to the analysis and appreciation of books, something finally clicked.
I credit John Irving for a lot of that.
Not all of it, of course. I had two fantastic English teachers during my junior and senior years of high school, but one of my summer reading books before my senior year was Irving’s classic A Prayer for Owen Meany. Until I read Owen Meany, I operated under the sad assumption that “great” novels were humorless slogs. I blame the school of “symbolism” for some of that wrongheadedness, but it was largely of my own making. I just didn’t get it.
I didn’t get it – until John Irving had me snorting with laughter on page five of Owen Meany while I was on a flight out to Tucson, Ariz., to visit the university. (I was considering colleges, and Arizona and Colorado had already accepted me. I was still waiting to hear from my eventual choice, Northwestern.)
My friends will, if pressed to describe me, probably say that I have a “unique” sense of humor. That’s putting it charitably. My friend Jordan Byrne once said that my sense of humor is best encapsulated when a character, while looking in another direction, runs into a tree. He’s not far off.
I don’t mean to suggest that Irving’s humor is that base – although he features just such a real-life gag in his memoir collection Trying to Save Piggy Sneed – but Irving demonstrated to me that broad physical comedy and goofball ribaldry have proud homes in great books.
Of course, I’m a dunce for taking so long to figure this out. Maybe if I had read A Confederacy of Dunces or Catch-22 earlier in my scholastic career, I might have gotten it sooner. But I followed the path I followed – and I’m glad I did. (Also, confession: I don’t love Confederacy of Dunces. Shame on me.)
Besides his humor, Irving’s influence extends into the rest of my writing, as well. My friend (and trusted reader) Karl Mueller once said that I like to spin yarns. So be it. I’m a yarn-spinner. I’ve tried to get that impulse under control lately, but I suspect I picked it up from Irving (as well as the author Ferrol Sams, who I’ll discuss in another entry). I love how Irving’s novels jump around in time, all while hurtling toward a single destiny. My second novel, The Island Circus, is my most blatant attempt at Irving-style narrative complexity. It unfolds over four timelines, includes two first-person narrators, and features a cast of about 20 major characters.
I’ve read six of Irving’s novels through my adulthood, including The Water-Method Man, The World According to Garp, The Hotel New Hampshire, The Fourth Hand, The Cider House Rules and most recently, Last Night in Twisted River. I realize I have a few left to read, but Irving’s like Shakespeare to me – I like to have a few out there that I haven’t read. Some thoughts on them:
Owen Meany remains my favorite and the one I’ve re-read the most often, although Garp’s found its way onto my bedside table a few times. All told, I’d name The Cider House Rules as his greatest novel-with-a-capital-N.
Lighter in weight and thematic heft, The Fourth Hand feels like the kind of novel Irving writes to recharge his batteries. (And it’s still twice the book I could ever write. I’ve also modeled one of my own female heroes after a character in The Fourth Hand.)
I still break into giggles when I think about the skiing accident in Water-Method Man, and as a guy who lifts weights like crazy, The Hotel New Hampshire resonates with me the most on that level. (Of course, weightlifting and physical fitness are mainstays of any Irving novel, like bears and Vienna.)
Needless to say, I’ll never be able to write a novel that can approach the greatness of one of Irving’s works.
But by Crom am I going to have fun trying.