Irving, John

views updated Jun 08 2018

John Irving


Born John Wallace Blunt, Jr., March 2, 1942, in Exeter, NH; son of Colin F. N. (a teacher) and Frances (Winslow) Irving; married Shyla Leary, August 20, 1964 (divorced, 1981); married Janet Turnbull, June 6, 1987; children: (first marriage) Colin, Brendan, (second marriage) Everett. Education: University of New Hampshire, B.A. (cum laude), 1965; University of Iowa, M.F.A., 1967; additional study at University of Pittsburgh, 1961-62, and University of Vienna, 1963-64.


Home—Dorset, VT; and Toronto, Ontario, Canada. Agent—c/o Author Mail, Random House, 201 East 50th St., New York, NY 10022.


Novelist. Windham College, assistant professor of English, 1967-69, 1970-72; University of Iowa, Iowa City, writer-in-residence, 1972-75; Mount Holyoke College, South Hadley, MA, assistant professor of English, 1975-78; Brandeis University, assistant professor of English, 1978-79. Teacher and reader at Bread Loaf Writers Conference, 1976. Phillips Exeter Academy, NH, assistant wrestling coach, 1964-65; Northfield Mt. Hermon School, assistant wrestling coach, 1981-83, Fessenden School, assistant wrestling coach, 1984-86, Vermont Academy, head wrestling coach, 1987-89.

Awards, Honors

Rockefeller Foundation grant, 1971-72; National Endowment for the Arts fellowship, 1974-75; Guggenheim fellow, 1976-77; National Book Award nomination, 1979, and American Book Award, 1980, both for The World according to Garp; named among ten "Good Guys" honored for contributions furthering advancement of women, National Women's Political Caucus, 1988, for The Cider House Rules; Academy Award for screenplay based on material previously produced or published, 1999, for The Cider House Rules.


Setting Free the Bears (also see below), Random House (New York, NY), 1969.

The Water-Method Man (also see below), Random House (New York, NY), 1972.

The 158-Pound Marriage (also see below), Random House (New York, NY), 1974.

The World according to Garp, Dutton (New York, NY), 1978.

Three by Irving (contains Setting Free the Bears, The Water-Method Man, and The 158-Pound Marriage), Random House (New York, NY), 1980.

The Hotel New Hampshire, Dutton (New York), 1981.

The Cider House Rules, Morrow (New York, NY), 1985.

A Prayer for Owen Meany, Morrow (New York, NY), 1989.

Son of the Circus, Random House (New York, NY), 1994.

Trying to Save Piggy Sneed, Arcade (New York, NY), 1996.

The Imaginary Girlfriend: A Memoir (autobiography), Random House (New York, NY), 1996.

A Widow for One Year, Random House (New York, NY), 1998.

The Cider House Rules: A Screenplay (produced by Miramax, 1999), Hyperion (New York, NY), 1999.

My Movie Business: A Memoir, Random House (New York, NY), 1999.

The Fourth Hand, Random House (New York, NY), 2001.

A Sound like Someone Trying Not to Make a Sound (children's book) illustrated by Tatjana Hauptmann, Random House (New York, NY), 2004.

Also contributor of short stories to Esquire, New York Times Book Review, Playboy, and other magazines; contributor of introduction to Leah, New Hampshire: The Collected Stories of Thomas Williams, Graywolf Press (Minneapolis, MN), 1993.

Irving's manuscripts are collected at Phillips Exeter Academy, NH.


The World according to Garp was adapted as a film by Warner Bros./Pan Arts, 1982; The Hotel New Hampshire was adapted as a film by Orion Pictures, 1984; The Cider House Rules was adapted for the stage by Peter Parnell, produced in Seattle, WA, 1996, and published by Dramatists Play Service (New York, NY), 2001, and adapted as a film in 1999; Simon Birch, based on Irving's A Prayer for Owen Meany, was adapted as a film by Hollywood Pictures, 1998; The Door in the Floor, based on Irving's A Widow for One Year, was filmed by Focus Features, 2004, and the screenplay by Tod Williams was published by Ballantine Books (New York, NY), 2004; The Pension Grillparzer, based on portions of The World according to Garp, was adapted for the stage by director Mollie Bryce and produced in Hollywood, CA, 2004. Irving's novels have been adapted as audiobooks by Random Audio.

Work in Progress

A screenplay version of The Fourth Hand, for Miramax.


Novelist John Irving is praised as a storyteller with a fertile imagination and a penchant for meshing the comic and the tragic. As Saturday Review critic Scot Haller explained, "Fashioning wildly inventive, delightfully intricate narratives out of his sense of humor, sense of dread and sense of duty, Irving blends the madcap, the macabre, and the mundane into sprawling, spiraling comedies of life." Irving is perhaps best known for his critically acclaimed bestseller The World according to Garp, which sold more than three million copies in hardback and paperback following its 1978 publication. The novel achieved a cult status—complete with T-shirts proclaiming "I Believe in Garp"—and also received serious critical attention, the two combining to propel the novel's author "into the front rank of America's young novelists," according to Time critic R. Z. Sheppard.

Though a contemporary novelist, Irving's concerns are traditional, a characteristic some critics have cited as distinguishing Irving's work from that of other fiction writers of his generation. Dictionary of Literary Biography contributor Hugh M. Ruppersburg, for example, wrote that "the concerns of Irving's novels are inherently contemporary. Yet often they bear little similarity to other recent fiction, for their author is more interested in affirming certain conventional values—art and the family, for instance—than in condemning the status quo or heralding the arrival of a new age.… What is needed, [Irving] seems to suggest, is a fusion of the compassion and common sense of the old with the egalitarian openmindedness of the new." Irving himself has likened his themes and narrative technique to those of nineteenth-century writers. "I occasionally feel like a dinosaur in my own time because my fictional values are terribly old-fashioned," he stated in the Los Angeles Times. "They go right

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back to the deliberately sentimental intentions of the nineteenth-century novelist: Create a character in whom the reader will make a substantial emotional investment and then visit upon that character an unbearable amount of pain." Like those nineteenth-century novelists, Irving also believes that he is responsible for entertaining the reader. "I think, to some degree, entertainment is the responsibility of literature," Irving told Haller. "I really am looking upon the novel as an art form that was at its best when it was offered as a popular form. By which I probably mean the nineteenth century."

Irving was born John Wallace Blunt, Jr., in Exeter, New Hampshire, on March 2, 1942. His birth name was given in honor of his biological father, a World War II aviator who was shot down over Burma. Irving's mother legally changed her son's name to John Winslow Irving after he was adopted by her second husband, Colin F. N. Irving. The young Irving attended Philips Exeter Academy, where his stepfather was a teacher, but he struggled in school, both socially and academically; he would later be diagnosed as dyslexic. With the help of two men—his wrestling coach and his writing teacher—Irving finally began to experience success, and he developed two lifelong passions: wrestling and writing. According to Dictionary of Literary Biography contributors Todd F. Davis and Kenneth Womack, Irving's "writing process and his understanding of the act of writing were also influenced by the variety of coping strategies that he developed as a result of his learning disability. Because of his dyslexia, Irving understood that his writing process would be markedly distinct from other writers. He begins each novel knowing how it will end—even the very line it will end upon, in some instances—and he writes the first draft of each novel in the third person before working back through the manuscript in several drafts and revisions."

Having decided on a career as a full-time writer, Irving enrolled at the University of Pittsburgh. After a disappointing freshman year, he traveled to Vienna, Austria, to study abroad. The unfamiliar sights and sounds of Vienna proved disconcerting to Irving at first, but his experiences there would eventually inform his writing. "Irving's insight into the concept of difference—initially triggered by the stark contrasts between Vienna and the familiar New England landscape of his youth—serves as the basis for Irving's penchant for detail," remarked Davis and Womack. "His recognition that the visceral, material accretion of detail is what represents the singularity of a setting or character complements his devotion to the novelistic forms of Charles Dickens, another master of such techniques." After he returned to the United States, Irving received his bachelor's degree from the University of New Hampshire in 1965, and that same year he published his first short story, "A Winter Branch." In 1967 he received his master's degree from the University of Iowa, and he began his teaching career at Windham College in Vermont.

Irving's first novel, Setting Free the Bears, appeared in 1969. The work sold about 6,000 copies and garnered some positive critical attention. His next two novels, The Water-Method Man, published in 1972, and The 158-Pound Marriage, published in 1974, did not fare as well. With the publication of the 1978 blockbuster novel The World according to Garp, however, Irving's career was irrevocably changed.

A Landmark Novel

Irving's nineteenth-century values are reflected in The World according to Garp, a book he described in the Washington Post Book World as "an artfully disguised soap opera." "The difference is that I write well," Irving added, "that I construct a book with the art of construction in mind, that I use words intentionally and carefully. I mean to make you laugh, to make you cry; those are soap-opera intentions, all the way." A lengthy family saga, the novel focuses on nurse Jenny Fields, her illegitimate son, novelist T. S. Garp, and Garp's wife and two sons. Described as a "disquieting" work by New Republic

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contributor Terrence Des Pres, The World according to Garp explicitly explores the violent side of contemporary life. Episodes involving rape, assassination, mutilation, and suicide abound, but these horrific scenes are always infused with comedy. As Irving noted in the Los Angeles Times, "No matter how gray the subject matter or orientation of any novel I write, it's still going to be a comic novel."

"A true romantic hero," according to Village Voice critic Eliot Fremont-Smith, Garp is obsessed with the perilousness of life and wants nothing more than to keep the world safe for his family and friends. Ironically, however, Garp is the one who ultimately inflicts irreversible harm, illustrating Irving's point that "the most protective and unconditionally loving parents can inflict the most appalling wounds on their children," explained Pearl K. Bell in Commentary. While Garp is obsessed with protecting his family and friends, his mother's obsession involves promoting her status as a "sexual suspect": a woman who refuses to share either her life or her body with a man. Through her best-selling autobiography A Sexual Suspect, Jenny becomes a feminist leader. Her home evolves into a haven for a group of radical feminists, The Ellen James Society, whose members have cut out their tongues as a show of support for a young girl who was raped and similarly mutilated by her attackers. Both Garp and Jenny are eventually assassinated, she by an outraged anti-feminist convinced that Jenny's influence ruined his marriage and Garp by an Ellen Jamesian convinced that he is an exploiter of women because of a novel he wrote about rape. Discussing these characters in a Publishers Weekly interview with Barbara A. Bannon, Irving remarked: "It mattered very fiercely to me that [Garp and Jenny] were people who would test your love of them by being the extremists they were. I always knew that as mother and son they would make the world angry at them."

Critics noted that The World according to Garp demonstrates a timely sensitivity to women—an acknowledgment by Irving of the growing women's liberation movement of the late twentieth century—because it deals sympathetically with issues such as rape, feminism, and sexual roles. Nation contributor Michael Malone wrote that, "With anger, chagrin and laughter, Irving anatomizes the inadequacies and injustices of traditional sex roles.… The force behind a memorable gallery of women characters—foremost among them, Garp's famous feminist mother and his English professor wife—is not empathy but deep frustrated sympathy." A similar opinion was expressed by Ms. contributor Lindsy Van Gelder, who admitted admiration for Irving's ability to explore "feminist issues from rape to sexual identity to Movement stardom … minus any Hey-I'm-a-man-but-I-really understand selfconscious fanfare." Irving explained in the Los Angeles Times, however, that his "interest in women as a novelist is really very simple.… I see every evidence that women are more often victims than men. As a novelist I'm more interested in victims than in winners." In fact, Irving flatly disagrees with critics who describe The World according to Garp in sociological or political terms. He stated in an interview with Larry McCaffery: "when people write about Garp and say that it's 'about' feminism and assassination and the violence of the sixties, they're ignoring the fact that I lived half of the sixties in another country. I don't know anything about the violence of the sixties; it's meaningless to me. I'm not a sociological writer, nor should I be considered a social realist in any way."

Despite its fairytale-like qualities, Irving's The Hotel New Hampshire explores adult issues like incest, terrorism, suicide, freakish deaths, and gang rape with the novelist's trademark macabre humor. A family saga in the tradition of The World according to Garp, The Hotel New Hampshire spans nearly four generations of the troubled Berry family. Headed by Win, a charming but irresponsible dreamer who is ultimately a failure at inn-keeping, and Mary, who dies in the early stages of the novel, the Berry family includes five children: Franny, Frank, Egg, Lilly, and John, the narrator. While Egg perishes along with his mother, the remaining children are left to struggle through childhood and adolescence. Irving reflected on the Berry family in New York: The Hotel New Hampshire "takes a large number of people and says in every family we have a dreamer, a hero, a late bloomer, one who makes it very big, one who doesn't make it at all, one who never grows up, one who is the shit detector, the guide to practicality, and often you don't know who these people will be, watching them in their earlier years."

The Berrys, along with an array of subsidiary characters—human and animal—eventually inhabit three hotels: one in New Hampshire, one in Vienna, and one in Maine. According to Irving, the hotels are symbols for the passage from infancy to maturity. "The first hotel is the only real hotel in the story," the author explained in New York. "It is childhood. The one in Vienna is a dark, foreign place, that phase called adolescence, when you begin leaving the house and finding out how frightening the world is.… The last one is no hotel at all.… It is a place to get well again, which is a process that has been going on throughout the novel."

Following such a phenomenally successful work, The Hotel New Hampshire naturally invited comparisons to its predecessor. "There is no question in my mind it's better than The World according to Garp," Irving maintained in New York. "It certainly is every bit as big a book, and it means much more. It's a more ambitious novel symbolically but with a different point of view, deliberately narrower." Irving nevertheless anticipated that critics would reject the novel, and critics' opinions largely fulfilled his dismal prediction. Chicago Tribune Book World contributor Judith Rossner, for example, noted, "I found an emptiness at the core of The Hotel New Hampshire that might relate to the author's having used up his old angers and familiar symbols without having found new reasons for his rage and different bodies to make us see it." Saturday Review critic Scot Haller wrote that The Hotel New Hampshire "could not be mistaken for the work of any other writer, but unfortunately, it cannot be mistaken for Irving's best novel, either." Time critic R. Z. Sheppard offered the view that, unlike Garp's story, "John Berry's story is not resolved in violent, dramatic action, but in a quiet balancing of sorrow and hope. It is a difficult act, and it is not faultless. The dazzling characterizations and sense of American place in the first part of the novel tend to get scuffed in transit to Europe. There are tics and indulgences. But the book is redeemed by the healing properties of its conclusion. Like a burlesque Tempest, Hotel New Hampshire puts the ordinary world behind, evokes a richly allusive fantasy and returns to reality refreshed and strengthened."

Explores Moral and Theological Issues

Originally intended to be a saga of orphanage life in early twentieth-century Maine, Irving's sixth novel, The Cider House Rules, instead became a statement on abortion. The issue of abortion arose during Irving's research for the novel, when he "discovered that abortion was an integral part of the life of an orphanage hospital at that time," as he later explained in the Los Angeles Times. "This is in part a didactic novel, and in part a polemic," he added. "I'm not ashamed of that.… But I remain uncomfortable at the marriage between politics and fiction. I still maintain that the politics of abortion came to this book organically, came to it cleanly."

Evoking the works of Victorian novelists such as Dickens and Charlotte Brontë, The Cider House Rules is set in an orphanage in dreary St. Cloud, Maine, where the gentle, ether-addicted Dr. Larch and his saintly nurses preside lovingly over their orphans. Larch also provides illegal but safe abortions, and although he is painfully aware of the bleak existence many of the orphans endure, he does not encourage expectant mothers to abort. As he puts it, "I help them have what they want. An orphan or an abortion." One unadopted orphan in particular, Homer Wells, becomes Larch's spiritual son and protege. Larch schools Homer in birth and abortion procedures in the hope that Homer will one day succeed him at the orphanage. When Homer comes to believe that the fetus has a soul, however, he refuses to assist with abortions. A conflict ensues, and Homer seeks refuge at the Ocean View apple orchard, located on the coast of Maine. The book's title refers to the list of rules posted in Ocean View's cider house regarding migrant workers' behavior.

Several critics acknowledged the significance of rules, both overt and covert, in the lives of the novel's characters. Toronto Globe and Mail contributor Joy Fielding, for example, commented that The Cider House Rules "is all about rules; the rules we make and break; the rules we ignore; the rules we post for all to see; the invisible rules we create for ourselves to help us get through life; the absurdity of some of these rules and the hypocrisy of others, specifically our rules regarding abortion." Similarly, Los Angeles Times critic Elaine Kendall wrote that "Much is made of the literal Cider House Rules, a typed sheet posted in the migrant workers dormitory, clearly and politely spelling out the behavior expected by the owners of the orchard. Sensible and fair as these rules are, they're made to be broken, interpreted individually or ignored entirely, heavily symbolic of the social and moral codes Irving is exploring." New York Times reviewer Christopher Lehmann-Haupt similarly noted that Dr. Larch follows his own rules and that "the point—which is driven home with the sledgehammer effect that John Irving usually uses—is that there are always multiple sets of rules for a given society. Heroism lies in discovering the right ones, whether they are posted on the wall or carved with scalpels, and committing yourself to follow them no matter what."

Despite the multiplicity of rules and moral codes explored by Irving, critics tended to focus on abortion as the crux of The Cider House Rules, but expressed different opinions concerning Irving's position on the abortion issue. Time critic Paul Gray commented that The Cider House Rules "is essentially about abortions and women's right to have them," and Susan Brownmiller described the work in the Chicago Tribune as "a heartfelt, sometimes moving tract in support of abortion rights." Kendall, on the other hand, maintained, "Though Dr. Larch's philosophy justifying his divided practice is exquisitely and closely reasoned, the abortion episodes are graphic and gruesome, as if Irving were simultaneously courting both pro-choice and right-to-life factions." New York Times Book Review contributor Benjamin DeMott offered this view: "The knowledge and sympathy directing Mr. Irving's exploration of the [abortion] issue are exceptional. Pertinent history, the specifics of surgical procedure, the irrecusable sorrow of guilt and humiliation, the needs and rights of children—their weight is palpable in these pages."

Remarking in a Time interview that he is "moved and impressed by people with a great deal of religious faith," Irving explained to Michael Anderson in the New York Times Book Review that "Jesus has always struck me as a perfect victim and a perfect hero." What impresses the novelist most is that Christ is aware of his own destiny: "That is truly a heroic burden to carry," he told Phyllis Robinson in the Book-of-the-Month Club News. In his novel A Prayer for Owen Meany, which examines the good and evil—especially the capacity of each to be mistaken for the other—Irving's Christ-like hero knows his destiny, including the date and circumstances of his death. Small in size but large in spirit, Owen Meany has a distinctive but ineffable voice caused by a fixed larynx, and throughout the novel, Irving renders Owen's speech in upper case—suggested to him by the red letters in which Jesus's utterances appear in the New Testament. Believing that nothing in his life is accidental or purposeless, Owen professes himself an instrument of God, and his sacrifices result in the gradual conversion of his best friend, the book's narrator, Johnny Wheelwright. "No one has ever done Christ in the way John Irving does Him in A Prayer for Owen Meany," maintained Stephen King in his review of the novel for the Washington Post Book World.

In a Time review, Sheppard pointed out that "anyone familiar with Irving's mastery of narrative technique, his dark humor and moral resolve also knows his fiction is cute like a fox." Sheppard suggested that, despite its theological underpinnings, A Prayer for Owen Meany "scarcely disguise[s] his indignation about the ways of the world," and actually represents "a fable of political predestination." Although finding the book flawed in terms of its structure and development, Robert Olen Butler suggested in Chicago's Tribune Books that it nevertheless contains "some of the elements that made The World according to Garp so attractive to the critics and the bestseller audience alike: flamboyant, even bizarre, characters; unlikely and arresting plot twists; a consciousness of contemporary culture; and the assertion that a larger mechanism is at work in the universe."

More bizarre characters and situations await readers of Irving's A Son of the Circus. Dr. Farrokkh Daruwalla is an Indian-born orthopedist who lives in Canada but makes periodic trips to India to work at a children's hospital, conduct genetic research on circus dwarfs, and write second-rate screenplays. Packed with characters and motifs that have come to be seen as characteristically Irving, A Son of the Circus nevertheless disappointed some reviewers. "The quirkiness with which the author customarily endows privileged characters is … scarce here," observed Webster Johnson in the Times Literary Supplement. "In fact, Daruwalla and the rest incline towards the lacklustre; any colour derives chiefly from the compound incidents which entangle them." Bharati Mukherjee wrote in the Washington Post Book World that the novel is Irving's "most daring and most vibrant. And though it is also his least satisfying, it has a heroic cheekiness.… But its very energy and outrageousness make it compete with rather than complement the tragic story of people.… Irving India-surfs himself into exhaustion until the subcontinent becomes, for the reader as well as for one of his characters, neither symbol nor place but a blur of alarming images."

Ruth Cole is the protagonist of A Widow for One Year, a novel that explores the nature of fiction writing through several of its characters. When the novel opens on Long Island in 1958, four-year-old Ruth witnesses the dissolution of her parents' marriage, which has suffered under the strain of the tragic death of the couple's teenage sons in a car accident before Ruth was born. Each of her parents drowns their pain in different ways; her father with women and alcohol, and her mother by turning their suburban home into a shrine for her dead sons. After Ruth's mother has an affair with her husband's teen-aged assistant, she abandons both her husband and daughter. Eddie O'Hare, the object of Ruth's mother's affections, looks back on the affair years later, writes a novel about the romance, and becomes part of Ruth's literary circle.

The second two sections of the book take place in the 1990s, where tragedy continues to follow Ruth. Now an adult, she finds her father in bed with her best friend, a betrayal that ultimately results in her father's suicide and a spiteful sexual encounter for Ruth that turns violent. She also becomes a famous author, loses her husband, writes a novel called A Widow for One Year, and becomes embroiled in the seamy side of Amsterdam during a book tour held while a serial killer is on the loose. Despite its complex plot, A Widow for One Year is, at its core, an exploration of writers and writing. The prominence of writers in the story, Michiko Kakutani explained in the New York Times, is "to make some points about the ordering impulses of art and the imaginative transactions made by artists in grappling with the real world."

A Widow for One Year met with generally favorable reviews. Although Candia McWilliam described the novel in her New Statesman review as a book "in which too many women, alas, behave like men," she complimented Irving's "themes of bereavement and creativity, of love between young men and older women, of widowhood and human hope re-born." Kakutani noted that, while the novel is full of unbelievable coincidences and characters that border on caricature, Ruth is a "complex, conflicted woman" and Irving's "authoritative narrative steamrolls over the contrivances, implausibilities and antic excesses … to create an engaging and often affecting fable, a fairy tale that manages to be old-fashioned and modern all at once." William H. Pritchard, writing in the New York Times Book Review, called A Widow for One Year one of Irving's best, commenting that "the writing is very much of the surface, strongly, sometimes even cruelly, outlined, unfriendly to ambiguity and vacillation, secure in its brisk dispositions of people and place."

In The Fourth Hand Irving's farcical tendencies are again at play. While a television reporter is on assignment covering a circus in India, his hand is eaten by a lion, the tragedy recorded on live television. The victim, Patrick Wallingford, is a handsome man who has been prone to having affairs with women; he has cruised through life on his charm. Now he is known as the Lion Guy and, instead of attracting attractive women, he becomes a magnet for more offbeat characters. A recently widowed Green Bay, Wisconsin, woman, after her husband is killed in a freak accident, wants Patrick to have her husband's hand. In return, however, she requests visitation rights with the hand and the opportunity to be impregnated by Patrick. A deal is struck, and the anorexic and excrement-obsessed Dr. Zajac of Boston announces that he will perform the world's first hand transplant. Irving uses the character of Patrick to parody the empty world of television news broadcasting and the media's unending fascination with gruesome destruction. In the end, however, Irving turns the story into a tale of love's powers of redemption.

Recognizing Irving's trademark idiosyncratic characters and unlikely scenarios, along with his frequent themes of family and morality, several critics opined that The Fourth Hand treads ground that is too familiar. Paul Gray wrote in Time that the novel "offers the same mix of the macabre and the moral that Irving's army of admirers has come to expect," but maintained that the vapid Patrick cannot hold readers' interest. "Faced with a virtual cipher at the center of his tale, Irving works energetically to create distractions around the edges," Gray explained. Other critics had more appreciation for the novel's storyline. "Irving's worlds are ludicrous in the most appealing way and expertly sentimental at the same time," wrote Doug McClemont in Library Journal, "and his approachable language can be both musical and magical." Bonnie Schiedel, writing in Chatelaine, called The Fourth Hand "downright weird.… but also funny and bracingly original," while Caroline Moore in the Spectator summarized the symbolism inherent in the novel's title: "It is the phantom 'fourth hand' of the imagination which … can bridge the gap between voyeurism and compassion, sensationalism and empathy."

Trying to Save Piggy Sneed collects Irving's non-novel works: memoirs, short stories, and homage pieces. "The Imaginary Girlfriend" details Irving's career as an amateur wrestler and coach and touches on his development as a writer, while other essays present homage to authors Günther Grass and Charles Dickens. The fiction section includes "Pension Grillparzer," which originally appeared in The World according to Garp, along with five other short stories. In the New York Times Book Review, Sven Birkerts stated that Trying to Save Piggy Sneed "shows how one of our most widely read novelists fares in what he might consider a triathlon of lesser events. What we find, in this order, are disappointment, confirmations and surprises."

In 2004 Irving published his first children's book, A Sound like Someone Trying Not to Make a Sound, illustrated by Tatjana Hauptmann. Originally included as a story in Irving's adult novel A Widow for One Year, A Sound like Someone Trying Not to Make a Sound concerns the efforts of a sympathetic father to soothe his young sons' bedtime fears and fantasies. "In showing young readers that the things that go bump in the night are, in reality, not so scary, Irving succeeds in helping them confront their fears," observed a Publishers Weekly critic.

From Book to Film

Because of their visual imagery and action, many of Irving's novels have been adapted for film, sometimes on the basis of the novelist's own screenplay. Irving's quest to adapt The Cider House Rules for film is the subject of My Movie Business, which was published in tandem with the film's release in 1999. The book also covers adaptations by others of Irving's other novels and his experience writing the screenplay for Setting Free the Bears. Along the way, he elaborates on his pro-choice stance, the history of abortion in the United States, and his grandfather's career as an obstetrician.

As Irving explains in his book, in some ways, the history of The Cider House Rules encompasses all facets of the Hollywood movie industry. The film was thirteen years in the making. The script went through numerous revisions and directors came and went before Lasse Hallstrom signed on and the film was made. Along the way, Irving had to confront some harsh realities, notably trimming his first draft from nine hours down to a more theater-friendly two. This severe editorial surgery required leaving out many characters and subplots, but the novelist's efforts paid off when he won an Academy Award for best screenplay. "Irving comes off as a testy collaborator with a decidedly anemic view of the screenwriting process," Jonathan Bing maintained in Variety. However, Benjamin Svetkey wrote in Entertainment Weekly that My Movie Business contains "sweetly personal moments" and would well-serve readers looking for "a charming, sublimely written technical primer" on the movie industry.

If you enjoy the works of John Irving

you may also want to check out the following books:

John Kennedy O'Toole, A Confederacy of Dunces, 1980.

Anne Tyler, The Accidental Tourist, 1985.

Don DeLillo, Underworld, 1997.

Although he is not a prolific novelist, Irving remains highly popular with the reading public, as well as with moviegoers through his increasing activity as a screenwriter. Afforded the opportunity due to his stature within American letters, he regularly and publicly debates the nature and worth of novelists and their works and, in doing so, "brings a gladiatorial spirit to the literary arena," wrote a critic for Maclean's. Long a proponent of character-and plot-driven fiction, Irving has been compared to such luminaries as Dickens and Henry James, both of whom had a similar preoccupation with the moral choices and failings of their characters. The Maclean's writer concluded that, "in a postmodern world, Irving remains stubbornly unfashionable—a writer of sprawling yarns knotted with subplots." Making a similar comparison, Caroline Moore noted that "the greatest popular artists—from Dickens to Chaplin—are circus-lovers and showmen, with an unabashed streak of sentimentality and sensationalism.… Irving at his best, combining the grotesque, tragic and warm-hearted, has something of their quality."

Biographical and Critical Sources


Bloom, Harold, editor, John Irving: Modern Critical Views, Chelsea House (Philadelphia, PA), 2001.

Campbell, Josie P., John Irving: A Critical Companion, Greenwood Press (New York, NY), 1998.

Contemporary Literary Criticism, Gale (Detroit, MI), Volume 13, 1980, Volume 23, 1983, Volume 38, 1986, Volume 112, 1999, Volume 175, 2003.

Contemporary Novelists, 7th edition, St. James Press (Detroit, MI), 2001.

Contemporary Popular Writers, St. James Press (Detroit, MI), 1997.

Davis, Todd F. and Kenneth Womack, The Critical Response to John Irving, Praeger, 2004.

Dictionary of Literary Biography, Gale (Detroit, MI), Volume 6: American Novelists since World War II, Second Series, 1980, Volume 278: American Novelists since World War II, Seventh Series, 2003.

Dictionary of Literary Biography Yearbook: 1982, Gale (Detroit, MI), 1983.

Encyclopedia of World Literature in the Twentieth Century, St. James Press (Detroit, MI), 1999.

Harter, Carol C., John Irving, Twayne (New York, NY), 1986.

Miller, Gabriel, John Irving, Ungar (New York, NY), 1982.

Modern American Literature, 5th edition, St. James Press (Detroit, MI), 1999.

Neubauer, Alexander, Conversations on Writing Fiction: Interviews with Thirteen Distinguished Teachers of Fiction Writing in America, HarperPerennial (New York, NY), 1994.

Reilly, Edward C., Understanding John Irving, University of South Carolina Press (Columbia, SC), 1993.

Runyon, Randolph, Fowles/Irving/Barthes: Canonical Variations on an Apocryphal Theme, Ohio State University Press (Columbus, OH), 1981.


Aethlon, spring, 1997, Don Morrow, "Wrestling John Irving," pp. 41-51.

America, December 31, 1994, p. 27.

Book, July-August, 2001, Dorman T. Shindler, interview with Irving.

Book-of-the-Month Club News, April, 1989.

Chatelaine, August, 2001, Bonnie Schiedel, review of The Fourth Hand, p. 12.

Chicago Tribune, May 12, 1985.

Chicago Tribune Book World, May 11, 1980; September 13, 1981.

Christian Century, October 7, 1981, pp. 986-988; September 27, 1995, p. 905; July 2, 1997, p. 615; December 23, 1998, Christopher Bush, review of A Widow for One Year, p. 1253.

Commentary, September, 1978; June, 1982, pp. 59-63.

Contemporary Literature, winter, 1982, pp. 1-18.

Creative Screenwriting, January-February, 2000, Renfreu Neff, "John Irving on Screenwriting," pp. 6-11.

Critique, Number 1, 1981, pp. 82-96.

Detroit News, August 30, 1981.

Entertainment Weekly, October 22, 1999, Benjamin Svetkey, review of My Movie Business, p. 79; July 20, 2001, Troy Patterson, review of The Fourth Hand, p. 60.

Esquire, September, 1981; August, 2004, p. 102.

Globe and Mail (Toronto, Ontario, Canada), March 10, 1984; July 6, 1985.

Kirkus Reviews, September 1, 2004, review of A Sound like Someone Trying Not to Make a Sound, p. 867.

Library Journal, June 1, 2001, Doug McClemont, review of The Fourth Hand, p. 216; October 1, 2001, p. 161.

Los Angeles Times, September 16, 1982; March 20, 1983; June 4, 1985; July 10, 1985.

Maclean's, June 11, 1979, pp. 4-6; April 3, 1989, p. 63; September 5, 1994, p. 54; April 15, 1996, p. 61; July 23, 2001, "Iron John: Stepping into the Lion's Den with John Irving," p. 40.

Meanjin, Volume 56, numbers 3-4, John Rickard, "Wrestling with the Text," pp. 714-722.

Modern Fiction Studies, summer, 1981, pp. 284-286.

Mother Jones, May-June, 1997, Suzanne Herel, interview with Irving.

Ms., July, 1979.

Nation, June 10, 1978.

New England Review, spring, 1997, Alison Freeland, "A Conversation with John Irving," pp. 135-142.

New Republic, April 29, 1978; September 23, 1981; May 22, 1989, p. 36.

New Statesman, September 23, 1994, p. 40; May 22, 1998, Candia McWilliam, review of A Widow for One Year, p. 55.

Newsweek, April 17, 1978; September 21, 1981; July 16, 2001, Jeff Giles, "The Wizard of Oddities," p. 61.

New York, August 17, 1981, pp. 29-32; March 20, 1989, p. 82; August 29, 1994, p. 113.

New Yorker, May 8, 1978; October 12, 1981; July 8, 1985.

New York Review of Books, July 20, 1989, p. 30.

New York Times, April 13, 1978; August 31, 1981; May 20, 1985; January 30, 1996, p. C15; June 15, 1997, "Life & Times: John Irving"; May 1, 1998, Michiko Kakutani, "Randomness, Luck, and Fate, but Whew, No Bears," p. 51; July 3, 2001, Michiko Kakutani, "Sex and Calamity Pave the Road to a Better Self," p. E10; August 1, 2001, Mel Gussow, "A Novelist Takes Command of an Unlikely Ink: That of the Tattoo Parlor," p. E1.

New York Times Book Review, April 23, 1978, pp. 26-27; May 21, 1978; May 26, 1985; March 12, 1989; September 4, 1994, pp. 1, 22; February 4, 1996, p. 9; March 23, 1997; April 28, 1998, Mel Gussow, "A Novelist Builds Out from Fact to Reach the Truth," p. B1; May 24, 1998, William H. Pritchard, "No Ideas! It's a Novel!," p. 7; July 8, 2001, Richard Eder, "One Hand Clapping," p. 12; June 16, 2002, Scott Veale, review of The Fourth Hand, p. 28.

Observer (London, England), August 8, 1994, p. 20; July 8, 2001, Euan Ferguson, "'Life Can Get You Any Time': One of America's Best-loved Writers Tells Euan Ferguson How an Unlikely Accident Can Make a Likely Story," p. 17.

People, December 25, 1978; November 14, 1994, p. 29; July 30, 2001, p. 95.

Prairie Schooner, fall, 1978.

Publishers Weekly, April 24, 1978; July 4, 1994, p. 51; January 16, 1995, p. 31; December 18, 1995, p. 40; February 26, 1996, p. 24; September 7, 1998, a review of A Widow for One Year, p. 32; September 3, 2001, review of The Fourth Hand, p. 30; August 23, 2003, review of A Sound like Someone Trying Not to Make a Sound, p. 54.

Quill & Quire, March, 1996, p. 65.

Rolling Stone, December 13, 1979, pp. 68-75.

San Francisco Chronicle, July 8, 2001, David Kipen, "A Firm Grasp of His Career: John Irving Talks about Critics, Contemporaries, and Connecting to Readers," p. 57.

Saturday Review, May 13, 1978; September, 1981, pp. 30-32; May, 1989, p. 65.

School Library Journal, October, 2004, Tana Elias, review of A Sound like Someone Trying Not to Make a Sound, p. 118.

Spectator, June 22, 1985; July 21, 2001, Caroline Moore, review of The Fourth Hand, p. 36.

Time, April 24, 1978; August 31, 1981, pp. 46-51; June 3, 1985; April 3, 1989, p. 80; July 16, 2001, Paul Gray, review of The Fourth Hand, p. 72.

Times (London, England), June 20, 1985.

Times Literary Supplement, October 20, 1978; June 21, 1985; April 9, 1993, p. 21; September 2, 1994, p. 11; March 22, 1996, p. 30.

Tribune Books (Chicago, IL), March 19, 1989.

Variety, March 6, 2000, Jonathan Bing, review of My Movie Business, p. 52.

Village Voice, May 22, 1978.

Washington Post, August 25, 1981.

Washington Post Book World, April 30, 1978; May 19, 1985; March 5, 1989; September 4, 1994, p. 5; January 21, 1996, p. 4.

Writer, January, 2002, Dorman T. Schindler, "In High Gear: John Irving Is Writing More than Ever and Loving It," p. 28.

ONLINE, (November 9, 2004), Harvey Ginsberg, interview with Irving., (May, 1998), Alden Mudge, "John Irving and the Architecture of Character"; (July, 2001) Alden Mudge, "Two Thumbs up for The Fourth Hand."

Guardian Online, (November 5, 2004), "John Irving."

National Public Radio, (January 24, 2000), "Prize-winning Author John Irving"; (November 20, 2001) "Film Adaptations of Books"; (May 24, 2004) "Intersections: In the Footsteps of Charles Dickens."

Random House, (November 5, 2004), "John Irving.", (March 3, 1997), Joan Smith, "A Man Who Takes His Lack of Talent Seriously."


Irving according to Irving (film), Landmark Media (Falls Church, VA), 2001.*

Irving, John (Winslow)

views updated May 17 2018

IRVING, John (Winslow)

Nationality: American. Born: Exeter, New Hampshire, 2 March 1942. Education: Phillips Exeter Academy, Exeter, graduated 1962; University of Pittsburgh 1961-62; University of Vienna, 1963-64; University of New Hampshire, Durham, B.A. (cum laude), 1965; University of Iowa, Iowa City, M.F.A. 1967. Family: Married 1) Shyla Leary in 1964 (divorced 1981), two sons; 2) Janet Turnbull in 1987. Career: Taught at Windham College, Putney, Vermont, 1967-69; lived in Vienna, 1969-71; writer-in-residence, University of Iowa, 1972-75; assistant professor of English, Mount Holyoke College, South Hadley, Massachusetts, 1975-78. Awards: Rockefeller grant, 1972; National Endowment for the Arts grant, 1974; Guggenheim grant, 1976; American Book Award, for paperback, 1980; Academy Award, Best Adapted Screenplay (Cider House Rules ), 2000. Agent: Sterling Lord Literistic, 1 Madison Avenue, New York, New York 10010. Address: c/o Random House, Inc., 201 E. 50th Street, New York, New York 10022-7703, U.S.A.



Setting Free the Bears. New York, Random House, 1969; London, Corgi, 1979.

The Water-Method Man. New York, Random House, 1972; London, Corgi, 1980.

The 158-Pound Marriage. New York, Random House, 1974; London, Corgi, 1980.

The World According to Garp. New York, Dutton, and London, Gollancz, 1978.

The Hotel New Hampshire. New York, Dutton, and London, Cape, 1981.

The Cider House Rules. New York, Morrow, and London, Cape, 1985.

A Prayer for Owen Meany. New York, Morrow, and London, Bloomsbury, 1989.

A Son of the Circus. New York, Random House, and London, Bloomsbury, 1994.

John Irving: Three Complete Novels (contains Setting Free the Bears ;The Water-Method Man ; and The 158-Pound Marriage ). New York, Wings Books, 1995.

A Widow for One Year. New York, Random House, 1998.

Short Stories

Trying to Save Piggy Snead. London, Bloomsbury, 1993.

Uncollected Short Stories

"A Winter Branch," in Redbook (New York), November 1965.

"Weary Kingdom," in Boston Review, Spring-Summer 1968.

"Almost in Iowa," in The Secret Life of Our Times, edited by GordonLish. New York, Doubleday, 1973.

"Lost in New York," in Esquire (New York), March 1973.

"Brennbar's Rant," in Playboy (Chicago), December 1974.

"Students: These Are Your Teachers!," in Esquire (New York), September 1975.

"Vigilance," in Ploughshares (Cambridge, Massachusetts), no. 4, 1977.

"Dog in the Alley, Child in the Sky," in Esquire (New York), June1977.

"Interior Space," in Fiction (New York), no. 6, 1980.



The Cider House Rules: A Screenplay. New York, Hyperion, 1999.


My Movie Business: A Memoir. New York, Random House, 1999.


Film Adaptations:

The World According to Garp, 1982; The Hotel New Hampshire, 1984; Simon Birch, based on the work A Prayer for Owen Meany, 1998; The Cider House Rules, 1999.

Manuscript Collections:

Phillips Exeter Academy, Exeter, New Hampshire.

Critical Studies:

Introduction by Terrence DuPres to 3 by Irving (omnibus), New York, Random House, 1980; Fowles, Irving, Barthes: Canonical Variations on an Apocryphal Theme by Randolph Runyon, Columbus, Ohio State University Press, 1982; John Irving by Gabriel Miller, New York, Ungar, 1982; Understanding John Irving by Edward C. Reilly, Columbia, South Carolina, University of South Carolina Press, 1991.

Theatrical Activities:

Actor: Film The World According to Garp, 1982.

* * *

The publication of The World According to Garp was an important event in contemporary American literature. For John Irving himself, of course, the novel's reception must have been extremely gratifying: the book neatly divided his career forever into the pre-and post-Garp periods. Initially a little-known academic novelist whose first three booksSetting Free the Bears, The Water-Method Man, and The 158-Pound Marriage rapidly sought the remainder lists, he suddenly found himself inundated by critical superlatives and, no doubt, positively drenched in money. He achieved that rare combination of literary acclaim and wide readership that every writer dreams of. The success of Garp, following the previous achievement of E.L. Doctorow's Ragtime, indicated that after many years of stifling academicism, fiction may have finally graduated from college and ventured out into the arena of ordinary life. Because many professors seem to believe that literature was written exclusively to be studied in their courses and because far too many writers receive their training in those courses, a great deal of American writing has been marked by a sterile obsession with technique for its own sake, a conscious avoidance of traditional subjects, a fatal attraction to critical theory, and a perverse desire to appeal only to a coterie of initiates.

Irving's works in general, and Garp most spectacularly, signal the return of fiction to its proper and honorable concernsa close engagement with the stuff of real life, a profound compassion for humanity, andinextricably and possibly even causally connected to these qualitiesgreat dedication to the narrative process, to storytelling itself. Irving cares deeply for his characters and their stories and makes his readers care for them as well; in doing so he places his work in the great lineage of the novel. Only a bold and innovative writer could venture so daringly backward into the literary past. His three most significant books at this point in his careerThe World According to Garp, The Cider House Rules, and A Prayer for Owen Meany indicate that this late twentieth-century American novelist also participates in the traditions of the nineteenth-century English novel. Long, leisurely narratives, densely populated with eccentrics, attentive to the whole lives of virtually all the characters, replete with coincidence and foreshadowing, full of allusions to specific writers and works, his novels combine a Dickensian richness of character and emotion with a Hardyesque sense of gloom and doom.

In addition to his refreshingly old-fashioned qualities, Irving also demonstrates his appropriateness to his own time and place. His novels are in many ways as contemporary as those of any of his peers. In addition to a growing sense of topicality, most fully realized in A Prayer for Owen Meany, they display all the familiar landmarks of the American literary countryside: violence, grotesquerie, a certain craziness, a racy, energetic style, and a powerful interest in the fiction-making process. They differ from one another in manner, matter, and meritThe 158-Pound Marriage seems his weakest performancebut they also share certain peculiarly Irvingesque subjects that create their special zany charm. Until The Cider House Rules, his books all dealt with such matters as academia, art, children, marital triangles and quadrangles, wrestlers, writers, sexual mutilation, Vienna, and bears. Bears creep through his first book and also show up in the long story "The Pension Grillparzer," that appears in The World According to Garp as well as The Hotel New Hampshire.

The pre-Garp Irving is lively, comic, whimsical, a writer whose works display immense confidence, a kind of assured easiness rare in a young beginner, far beyond the usual condescending cliches about promise. Setting Free the Bears is a revitalized American picaresque improbably set in Austria; the goal of its protagonist's lunatic quest is suggested in its title and works out to be as improbable as its location. The Water-Method Man deals with the sexual escapades, personal failures, and professional problems of a more or less lovable rogue wonderfully named Bogus Trumper; it explores, with rich glee, some fascinating notions about the creation of art from the chaos of Trumper's life, through the medium of avant-garde filmmaking and Trumper's absurd doctoral dissertation.

Whatever the value of his earlier work, however, in retrospect it seems a preliminary for The World According to Garp, which entirely altered Irving's career. The novel is written with enormous energy and strength, clearly the work of writer in full command of his material and his method. Although its style presents no particular problems and its plot moves in a leisurely, straightforward manner, the novel seems radically experimental for its complicated narrative progress. Its ostensibly simple story of the life of T.S. Garp from conception to death is interrupted by a number of other fictions from "The Pension Grillparzer" to a horribly violent account of rape, murder, and despair, Garp's own novel, The World According to Bensenhaver; the book also includes bits from Garp's mother's autobiography, A Sexual Suspect, other short stories, and parts of the biography of Garp that will only be written after his life and the book are over. In an action that must have called for some courage, Irving even includes an epilogue, detailing the lives of his characters after the main events of his major fiction have concluded: once again, in reverting to the methods of the past the author seems daringly innovative.

The actual subjects and events of Garp, just as unusual as its narrative archaism, come to dominate all of Irving's works. Although the novel itself was almost universally regarded as comic and, in Irving's words, "life affirming," it is an immensely sad and troubling book, haunted by violence, savagery, fear, horror, and despair. From beginning to end a bleeding wound gapes across the book: Garp's mother slashes a soldier in a theater; his father dies of a terrible war wound; his wife bites her lover's penis off in the same automobile accident that kills one of Garp's sons and half-blinds the other; and Garp's own novel, The World According to Bensenhaver, employs one of the most vivid rape scenes in all of literature. The relationship between sexuality and mutilation is emphasized through virtually every characterfrom Roberta Muldoon, the transsexual former football player to the man-hating feminists who cut out their own tongues to commemorate the maiming of a rape victim; Garp himself is assassinated by a cult member, the sister of the girl who was responsible for his sexual initiation.

Irving's fascination with sex-related violence and sexual mutilation winds disturbingly through most of his works, from the gang rapes of The Cider House Rules through the hijras transvestite eunuchsof India and the transsexual serial murderer Rahul in A Son of the Circus. Along with the bizarre and horrific narratives and the close attention to the character and life of the artist, the theme of sexual mutilation suggests something about the creative act itself. Throughout his works, art is generated out of sex, fear, pain, blood, and guilt; experiencing all these, Irving's artists create their fictions, which also make up a large part of the books about them, sometimes even as in A Son of the Circus, attempting to "write" life as if it were their own narrative. Sex, art, life, and the interpretation of both provide his rich and often puzzling structures, sometimes leading away from their initially simple, comic narrative lines into a region of horror, grotesquerie, insanity, and myth.

The post-Garp Irving, no longer the obscure academic writer, was rapidly transformed into the celebrity author, attentive to sales, publicity, and movie rights. He soon began to appear on the television talk shows, demonstrating his recipe for breaded veal cutlet; dressed in wrestler's togs and flexing his wrestler's muscles, he brooded handsomely in full color for readers of slick magazines. His good looks, his popularity, and his willingness to publicize his books and films earned him a more than literary fame and no doubt a more than literary fortunehis post-Garp works are copyrighted by something called Garp Enterprises Ltd. The Hotel New Hampshire and The Cider House Rules demonstrate the pernicious influence of success. The former continues some of the subjects of its predecessor, boiling over with violence and whimsya gang rape, a plane crash, suicide, terrorism, a lesbian in a bear suit, and a flatulent dog named Sorrow. Although the obsessions remain intact, they seem mechanical and perfunctory in style and substance; the laborious drollery and the easy cynicism, along with the specious profundities of the repeated catch phrases and verbal tags, read like warmed-over Vonnegut.

The Cider House Rules, on the other hand, shows that the author can move away from a possibly fatal self-imitation in new directions. Irving discovers for the first time the depths and possibilities of his natural penchant for Dickensian storytelling by inventing a truly Irvingesque place, an orphanage where abortions are performed. Though heavily dependent on the kind of research that hinders so many academic authors, The Cider House Rules recaptures some of the original Garpian compassion. The quirkiness of style and the fascination with genital wounds and sexual pain remain, but they are mixed with less labored touches of lightness and a good deal of love.

The Dickens and the Hardy influences flourish in A Prayer for Owen Meany, his finest work after Garp, which shows the author once again in full command of his considerable gifts and more fully aware of the tradition in which he works. Returning to the autobiographical mode that fuels the energy of Garp, Irving once again reports terrible events in a straightforward, even comic style, invents some remarkable peopleespecially the title characterand explores some of his favorite subjects. In addition, he more explicitly confronts his repeated theme of problematic paternity and this time attempts to provide reason and causality for what he had previously presented as the horrible mischancing of coincidence and fate; in A Prayer for Owen Meany Irving has found religion, specifically Christianity. He employs a nicely orchestrated set of typically unusual symbols and a variety of people and events to express the religious dimension, which encompasses the primitive and mythic as well as the various Protestant orthodoxies. As a result the book suggests a more energetic but less lapidary and learned John Updike.

The novel, along with the long, rather disordered exploration of India in A Son of the Circus, demonstrates that Irving has challenged himself in new ways: instead of settling for the sort of repetition that pleases far too many readers, he has chosen to break new ground. By contrast, A Widow for One Year marked a return to somewhat familiar territory, constituting a sort of female Garp saga with novelist Ruth Cole as its protagonist.

In a relatively brief time and at a relatively young age, John Irving has become a major contemporary novelist. His considerable body of work displays originality, development, and richness of subject and theme. His startling mixture of humor and sorrow, accessibility and complexity, clarity and confusion, of strong narrative with humane vision, of horrified despair with life-affirming comedy seems perfectly suited to end-of-century culture and literature. The chord he struck in a large and varied public with Garp continues to resonate; his works still appeal to a readership that encompasses many levels of literacy, an indication of their timeliness and power.

George Grella

Irving, John

views updated Jun 08 2018

John Irving

Author and screenwriter

Born John Wallace Blunt, Jr., March 2, 1942, in Exeter, NH; son of John, Sr. (an executive recruiter and writer) and Frances Blunt; stepson of Colin F. Irving (a teacher); married Shyla Leary (a painter and photographer), August 20, 1964 (divorced, 1981); married Janet Turnbull (a literary agent), 1987; children: Colin, Brendan (from first marriage), Everett (from second marriage). Education: University of New Hampshire, B.A. (cum laude), 1965; University of Iowa, MFA, 1967; also attended University of Pittsburgh, 1961-62, and Institute of European Studies, Vienna, Austria, 1963-64.

Addresses: Office—c/o Author Mail, Random House, 1745 Broadway, New York, NY 10019.


English instructor, Mount Holyoke College, South Hadley, MA, 1967-72, later an assistant professor of English; published first novel, Setting Free the Bears, 1968; appeared in film adaptation of his novel, The World According to Garp, 1982; wrote first screenplay, The Cider House Rules, adapted from his own novel, 1999, and appeared in a cameo in the film; wrote film adaptation of his novel A Widow for One Year as The Door in the Floor, 2004. Taught at Windham College and the University of Iowa. Served as writer-in-residence, University of Iowa and Brandeis University, 1978-79; also worked as a wrestling coach.

Awards: National Books Award for Fiction (Paperback) for The World According to Garp, National Book Foundation, 1980; Academy Award for best adapted screenplay, Academy of Motion Picture Arts and Sciences, for The Cider House Rules, 1999; National Board of Review Award for best screenplay, National Board of Review of Motion Pictures, for The Cider House Rules, 1999; Golden Satellite Award for best motion picture screenplay (adaptation), International Press Academy, for The Cider House Rules, 1999; inductee, Wrestling Hall of Fame, National Wrestling Hall of Fame and Museum.


American novelist John Irving has sold millions of copies of his books around the world. They have been translated into at least 30 languages. A number of Irving's novels have been regarded as creative failures by reviewers, yet all but two have been best sellers. Critics often praise his use of language, though that element can get out of control. In his books, the plots are often complex, sometimes to the point of meandering, and feature many odd characters. Of the latter aspect, Irving told Dorman T. Shindler in Book, "The characters in my novels, from the very first one, are always on some quixotic effort of attempting to control something that is uncontrollable—some element of the world that is essentially random and out of control."

Irving did not fully know about his early life until he reached adulthood. He was born John Wallace Blunt, Jr., in 1942, in Exeter, New Hampshire. He was the son of John Blunt, Sr., and his wife, Frances, known as Frankie. His father was a soldier during World War II who ended his marriage two years after Irving was born. Though he requested visitation and wanted to get to know his son, Irving's mother would not allow him to ever see their son. Irving grew up knowing nothing about his biological father.

As a young child, Irving was raised by his mother and grandmother in his grandmother's home in Exeter. When he was about six years old, his mother married Colin F. Irving. Her new husband gave his name to his new wife's son. John Wallace Blunt, Jr., was now known as John Winslow Irving. Colin Irving was a history teacher at a well-known prep school, Phillips Exeter Academy.

Despite his dyslexia, Irving liked to read. Wrestling became another passion. He received his education at Phillips Exeter Academy where he was better at wrestling than at school because of his then-undiagnosed dyslexia. Irving also had a very religious upbringing which later played a role in some of his novels.

After graduating from prep school, Irving entered the University of Pittsburgh. He went there primarily because of the school's wrestling team, but only stayed for one year. Irving transferred to the University of New Hampshire and continued to wrestle. While a student there, he won a grant to study at the Institute of European Studies for year, 1963 to 1964. In 1964, Irving married his first wife, a painter and photographer named Shyla Leary, whom he met while studying abroad. Leary had become pregnant with the couple's first child, Colin. They later had a second son named Brendan.

Irving graduated cum laude from the University of New Hampshire in 1965 and then entered the prestigious MFA creative writing program at the University of Iowa. This program has produced a number of well-known novelists, including Kurt Vonnegut. When Irving graduated from Iowa, he took an academic position while he worked on his first novels. He also continued to wrestle competitively, a sport he participated in until he was 34 years old.

Irving spent the next five years teaching English at Mount Holyoke College in Massachusetts. He published his first novel, Setting Free the Bears, in 1968. While the book received good reviews, it did not sell well. Irving wrote two more novels that also were ignored by the general public. The Water-Method Man, a farcical novel about sex, and The 158-Pound Marriage, were reviewed favorably by critics. Irving believed that his publisher, Random House, did not support the novels, and switched publishers.

Whether or not Irving was correct about Random House, his next novel was his breakthrough. In 1978, he published one of his best known books, The World According to Garp. This book made Irving famous and wealthy. After its publication, he left academia behind, except for stints as a writer in residence. The World According to Garp is a family saga about a single-mother nurse and her son, a wrestler named T.S. Garp. The novel is primarily set at Irving's alma mater, Phillips Exeter Academy. The World According to Garp was made into a film in 1982 that was a hit at the box office and featured a performance by actor Robin Williams as Garp. Irving himself had a cameo role as a wrestling referee.

The follow-up to The World According to Garp was not as embraced by critics. Titled The Hotel New Hampshire, this tragic comedy had several story lines including one about a brother who was in love with his sister. Despite the lack of critical support, The Hotel New Hampshire sold well.

That novel was published in 1981, a year in which much changed in Irving's life. He and his first wife divorced. Around the time of the divorce, his mother gave him a packet of information about his biological father. The packet included letters and newspaper articles about his heroism as a pilot during World War II. While this information satisfied some of the questions Irving had about his father, the novelist chose not to meet the man despite several opportunities over the years. Irving regarded the man who raised him, Colin Irving, as his father.

Though Irving's personal life was tumultuous for a time, he continued to write novels that had a wide following among readers. One book that was also better received by critics was The Cider House Rules. This novel focused on an orphanage in Maine run by a Dr. Larch, who also performed abortions on the side. Larch was assisted in his medical duties by a teenaged orphan named Homer, to whom Larch wants to teach the abortion procedure, but the boy is unwilling to learn. One character in the novel, an airman, was modeled on the information Irving learned about his father.

In 1987, Irving married his literary agent, Janet Turnbell. The couple had a son together, Everett. Turnbell is Canadian, so Irving and his family began spending part of every year in that country as well as living in his primary home in Vermont and a vacation home in Long Island, New York.

For his next novel, Irving again returned to Phillips Exeter Academy. Called A Prayer for Owen Meany, the book showed how much British author Charles Dickens influenced Irving's work. A sprawling book focused around a mythical story, the novel is narrated by John Wheelwright, a student at Exeter, whose life is greatly influenced by the title character, the diminutive Owen Meany. Meany is the son of granite quarrier and believes he is a tool of God. Wheelright undergoes a religious conversion because of Owen, though he later moves to Canada to dodge the draft for the Vietnam War. A Prayer for Owen Meany was very popular, becoming Irving's biggest seller after The World According to Garp. It also became a novel that was often read in literature classes in colleges and universities.

Irving went back to Random House starting with his next long novel, 1995's A Son of the Circus. Though a number of critics did not like the book, it still sold well. One theme in the novel was how when people inadvertently offend people through their actions they unknowingly reveal a truth about themselves. Irving uses this idea for comic effect as he focuses on the life of Dr. Daruwalla, an Indian-born physician who lives in Toronto, Canada, but does not feel at home in either place. The novel primarily takes place in India where the doctor works on a means to end dwarfism and also writes scripts for Bollywood mystery films.

Irving's 1998 novel, A Widow for One Year, was better received than his previous book. Critics noted that A Widow for One Year had much in common with The World According to Garp in terms of theme and structure. Driving this novel is Marion Cole, a mother whose two sons die in a car accident. Depressed, she leaves her husband and four-year-daughter behind and disappears for 37 years. She also has an affair with a 16-year-old boy named Eddie. Much of the novel focuses on the daughter Marion left behind as she grows, marries, has a child, and becomes a widow.

Over the years, Irving was not always happy with the way his novels were adapted for film. At this point in his career, he decided to take matters into his own hands. In 1999, he wrote an adaptation of his novel The Cider House Rules; the film won several awards. Irving chronicled the experience in his book My Movie Business: A Memoir. Six years later, he adapted A Widow for One Year for film. It was titled The Door in the Floor when it was released in 2004.

Though Irving found success as a screenwriter, his primary career remained writing novels. His next book, 2001's The Fourth Hand, was significantly shorter than most of his novels, only about 300 pages long, and much less complex and more lean in its execution. While critics were often dismissive, the book still sold extremely well. It was a number-one best seller within a week of its publication. The protagonist at the center of The Fourth Hand is a well-known television reporter named Patrick Wall-ingford. He attracts women and finds it hard to say no to their advances. His numerous affairs end his marriage, but after undergoing a change, he eventually finds true love. While The Fourth Hand was a more conventional novel, it still had many of Irving's signature peculiar moments and characters, such as a man who throws dog excrement at boaters on the Charles River. Wallingford himself loses his left hand to a lion and has hand transplant surgery. He falls in love with the hand donor's widow.

Irving's personal life was again changing in this time period. In December of 2001, Irving's half-brother, Chris Blunt, contacted him. Irving learned that he had two younger half brothers and a younger half sister from his biological father's other marriages. The novelist was also informed that his father had died about five years earlier. Irving became bonded to his new family members.

Even before The Fourth Hand was published, Irving was already at work on a novel, Until I Find You, that had a number of autobiographical elements to it. In the 820-page novel, Irving focuses on Jack Burns, an actor/screenwriter who learns about what he thinks is true about his somewhat tragic past from his rather difficult tattoo artist mother, Alice. One thing that Jack remembers was being sexually molested by an older women when he was only ten years old. Irving himself admitted that this happened to him as a child. When the novelist was eleven years old, he was repeatedly molested by an older woman for a year.

Jack is unsure about what really happened to him throughout his childhood and tries to find answers as he searches for his long-lost father, who he finds in the end. In interviews upon the book's publication, Irving admitted that the situation with his biological father had greatly influenced a number of his books much more than he realized or admitted to in the past. He initially wrote Until I Find You in first person, though he later changed it to a third person perspective before publication to make it more fictionalized for him and the reader.

Of the labor involved in writing his novels, Irving commented in the New York Times, "Being a writer is a strenuous marriage between careful observation and just as carefully imagining the truths you haven't had the opportunity to see. The rest is the necessary, strict toiling with the language; for me this means writing and rewriting the sentences until they sound as spontaneous as good conversation."

Selected writings


Setting Free the Bears, Random House (New York City), 1968.

The Water-Method Man, Random House, 1972.

The 158-Pound Marriage, Random House, 1974.

The World According to Garp, E. P. Dutton (New York City), 1978.

The Hotel New Hampshire, E. P. Dutton, 1981.

The Cider House Rules, Morrow (New York City), 1985.

A Prayer for Owen Meany, Morrow, 1989.

A Son of the Circus, Random House, 1995.

A Widow for One Year, Random House, 1998.

The Fourth Hand, Random House, 2001.

Until I Found You, Random House, 2005.


Trying to Save Piggy Sneed, Arcade Publishing (New York City), 1996.


My Movie Business: A Memoir, Random House, 1999.



Celebrity Biographies, Baseline II, Inc., 2005.


Book, July 2001, p. 30.

Entertainment Weekly, July 15, 2005, pp. 75-76; July 22, 2005, pp. 40-46.

Independent (London, England), August 5, 2005.

Irish Times (Dublin, Ireland) July 14, 2001, p. 64.

Maclean's, September 5, 1994, p. 54; July 23, 2001, p. 41.

New York Times, August 22, 1982, sec. 7, p. 3; April 25, 1989, p. C13; April 28, 1998, p. E1.

People, July 30, 2001, p. 95; July 25, 2005, pp. 88-90.

Publishers Weekly, February 26, 1996, p. 24; July 16, 2001, p. 77.

Time, April 3, 1989, p. 80.

Weekly Standard, August 13, 2001, p. 35.


John Irving

views updated Jun 08 2018

John Irving

One of a few modern best-selling writers who also has literary stature, John Irving (born 1942) rose to prominence in 1979 with his fourth novel, The World According to Garp. His novels have combined 19th century traditions with modern-day melodrama, sex, and random violence. In 2000, his screenplay adaptation of The Cider House Rules won an Academy Award.

Beginnings in Academic Life and Wrestling

Born John Wallace Blunt, Jr., in Exeter, New Hampshire, Irving grew up in academia. His mother, Frances, and father, an Army Air Force pilot, divorced before Irving was born and at age six Irving's mother remarried. Her new husband adopted Irving, giving him the name he is known by today. Absent parents played major roles in Irving's later novels, but in real life Irving grew up satisfied to have his stepfather and never met his biological father. His stepfather, Colin, taught history at the exclusive Phillips Exeter Academy. Irving enjoyed the rights of a faculty child, gaining automatic entry into Exeter, despite his poor grades. It was years before anyone realized he suffered from undiagnosed dyslexia.

During his time at Exeter, Irving took up wrestling, and it became a lifelong pursuit that spilled over into his novels. Beyond being an integral part of his novels, Irving credited wrestling with preparing him for life. Comparing writing and wrestling, Irving explained to Joan Smith of the on-line publication Salon, "I think what success I've had is more a testimony to my stamina, to my ability to work hard and work long than it is to any talent I would consider God-given or natural." Irving said that he loved wrestling because it was the first thing he was good at. He has often spoken of his first coach, Ted Seabrooke, as a major influence on his life.

After graduating from Exeter in 1961, Irving followed his interest in wrestling to the University of Pittsburgh. The following year, Irving transferred to New Hampshire and won a grant to study in Europe in 1963-64. He chose the University of Vienna Institute of European Studies because it seemed an exotic atmosphere, a place where he found a sense of anonymity and learned to "pay attention." Austria was central to Irving's first five novels.

In August 1964, Irving married photographer Shyla Leary whom he had met in Cambridge. He re-enrolled in the University of New Hampshire (where he had briefly studied earlier) in 1965. His first son, Colin, was born the same year Irving received a B.A. degree cum laude. Irving would point to the importance of becoming a father and how it later shaped his view of the world as a dangerous place. He told People's Kim Hubbard, "I think the anxiety of being a parent—that's really been my sense of myself." While at New Hampshire, Irving had two short stories published—"A Winter Branch" in a 1965 issue of Redbook and "Weary Kingdom" in a 1968 Boston Review.

Now fully focused on writing, Irving moved his family to Iowa so he could attend the prestigious University of Iowa Writer's Workshop. Once there, he studied with Vance Bourjaily and Kurt Vonnegut. Setting Free the Bears, published in 1968, was well reviewed but sold modestly. It was the first of several books in which bears would play a key role.

After earning his M.F.A. in 1967, Irving had a university writing career that spanned ten years. It included grants from Rockefeller Foundation in 1972, the National Endowment for the Arts fellowship in 1974, and the Guggenheim in 1976. Over the coming years, Irving would teach at Windham College in Putney, Vermont; Mount Holyoke College in Massachusetts; the Writer's Workshop in Iowa; and Bread Loaf Writers' Conference in Middlebury, Vermont. He helped make ends meet by coaching wrestling.

Following the release of Bears, Irving lived in Putney, Vermont, and in Vienna. His second son, Brendan, was born in 1971 and Irving wrote his second novel, The Water-Method Man, in 1972. He admitted to Marcus Griel in a December 13, 1979, Rolling Stone interview that he had "wanted to write a book, if I could, with a happy ending, because I didn't feel I had a happy ending in me, and I wanted to get one. I wanted to write a book that was absolutely comic." In her book John Irving, Carol Harter declared that this second novel was an enormous improvement over his first. She praised Irving's strong characters, fine control of tone, successful manipulation of point of view, and dramatic shifts in time sequence. She was not alone in her critical praise, but Irving enjoyed little reward in the way of sales. He worked as a writer-in-residence at the University of Iowa from 1972 to 1975.

Irving patterned his third novel, The 158-Pound Marriage, on Ford Maddox Ford's The Good Soldier and John Hawkes's The Blood Oranges and in the process grew more comfortable with first person narration. But some critics consider it one of his weaker novels. The Los Angeles Times's Michael Harris wrote in 1994, "In retrospect [The 158-Pound Marriage] seems the thinnest and meanest of his books. Its wife-swapping American academics lack seriousness, and Irving lets his contempt for them show."

Literary Acclaim Achieved

Despite his past critical acclaim, no one could have predicted the meteoritic rise Irving would experience when his fourth novel, The World According to Garp, was released in 1978. Irving became an immediate sensation and was able to leave academia and become a full-time writer. Garp was a family saga of the admirable hero T. S. Garp, a writer and father, and the illegitimate son of a nurse turned radical feminist. The novel was a complex interweaving of several life stories, filled with the steadying influence of the New England coastline. Its plot featured such surprises as a pro-football player-turned transvestite family friend, along with several catastrophic events. The novel was wildly popular and in 1980 was awarded the American Book Award for best paperback novel of 1979.

Irving's first marriage ended in 1981, as his career continued to soar. His next book, The Hotel New Hampshire, shared the reach of Garp, following the life arcs of a family full of quirky characters, while maintaining a comic-satiric tone.

After Hotel, Irving wrote some less convoluted novels. The Cider House Rules, published in 1985, was almost entirely a birth to death narrative. But Cider House stood out from his earlier novels in another way—it was a polemic, taking on the issue of abortion, filled with detailed descriptions of abortion and the depressing reality of unwanted pregnancies. "[It] not only imitates the form of a Victorian novel, it may be the most Victorian novel of our times," said Harris of the Los Angeles Times. A Prayer for Owen Meany, published in 1989, was called Irving's "second breakthrough," by Harris. The novel followed the lifespan of Owen Meany, a Christ-like figure, against the backdrop of the Vietnam War. Some critics considered it his best novel.

In answer to questions about how autobiographical his novels were, Irving dismissed the notion, "I can invent more interesting characters than most people I know," he stated at a question-and-answer session at New York's 92nd Street Y in 2001. "In the world of writing about writers, personal experience is, in my view, always overestimated, and the imagination is almost always devalued." On other occasions, however, Irving also acknowledged the autobiographical themes present in his novels of absent parents and lost children, and that his grandmother was the model for Harriet Wheelwright in A Prayer for Owen Meany.

Books Became Films

At the same time Irving became a best-selling author, his celebrity-status increased because of films based on his novels. His unusual characters and event-filled novels attracted attention as potential screenplays. The World According to Garp was made into a film of the same name starring Robin Williams in 1982. In 1984 The Hotel New Hampshire followed. One project, Simon Birch, was a failed attempt at adapting Owen Meany, and lost Irving's endorsement. Irving finally got the chance to adapt one of his novels to screen with The Cider House Rules. In 1999, he documented his turn to scriptwriting and the 13-year struggle he undertook to bring Cider House to the screen in My Movie Business: A Memoir.

Irving remarried in 1987. His second wife, Janet Turn-bull, was a publisher at Bantam-Seal books when she met him and, after their marriage, became his literary agent and first editor. In 1991, their son Everett was born.

Critics sometimes pointed to Irving's writing as pandering to his audience. "I've read about myself that I am not to be taken seriously because I am a shameless entertainer, a crowd pleaser," he told Richard Bernstein of the New York Times. "You bet. I am. My feeling is I'm not going to get you to believe anything if I can't get you to finish the book. I have a very simple formula, which is that you've got to be more interested on page 320 than on page 32." Irving cited Dickens, George Eliot, Gunter Grass, Robertson Davies, Gabriel Garcia Marquez, and Salman Rushdie as his models. He believed in diligent rewriting and again pointed to the value of his wrestling discipline, saying that writing was one-eighth talent and seven-eighths discipline.

Believing strongly in his role as a storyteller, Irving described his approach to writing. "There's a procedure I go through when I write," he told People's Hubbard. "I always try to think: Okay, this is what you think is coming. But what would be worse?" And in another interview with New York Times's Bernstein he stated, "It is my deliberate decision to create someone who is capable of moving you and then hurting him. It's an honorable 199th-century technique." With his later novels, A Son of the Circus, A Widow for One Year, and The Fourth Hand Irving continued a remarkable career and his novels enjoyed wide appeal.

Although widely recognized for his successful career in the United States, Irving benefited significantly from his international appeal. "More than half of my audience is in translation," Irving told Salon's Smith. "'A Son of the Circus,' my last novel, sold as many hardcover copies in France as it sold in the U.S. … So my biggest market is not English language and it hasn't been in the United States for years."

In the acknowledgements for The Fourth Hand, Irving wrote: "Every novel I've written has begun with a 'What if … "' The seed for Hand came from his wife, Janet, asking a question as they watched a news story about the first hand transplant in the United States, "What if the donor's widow demands visitation rights with the hand?" Irving worked feverishly and over the next 48 hours developed the entire storyline and title overnight. In one way, this was typical for Irving, because he always knew where his books would end before starting them, then he worked back to the beginning. "At the point where I actually write that first sentence," he told New York Times's Mel Gussow, "I'm really ready to go until I drop. I'm remembering the story." The Fourth Hand was shorter than most of Irving's novels and was the first that didn't trace its character from childhood and span generations.

Irving's work on The Fourth Hand drew him away from research he was doing for a novel called Until I Find You, set in the world of tattoo artists and church organists. In 2001, plans were announced for Irving and director Lasse Hallstrom (The Cider House Rules) to adapt The Fourth Hand for the screen. George Clooney was mentioned as a possible lead.

Irving maintains a strong relationship with all three of his sons. He divides his time between a rustic, hilltop home in southern Vermont overlooking the Green Mountains, a Toronto apartment, and an Ontario cottage on Georgian Bay. His routine includes sitting down eight hours each day to write and taking time out to practice wrestling. He writes his first drafts in longhand and then continues on one of many of his Selectric typewriters. Despite a prolific career, Irving seemed to be at another peak in 2001, busy on both a screenplay and a new novel. "It's funny to be 59 and busier than I was 20 years ago," he told New York Times's Gussow. " … I have never filled the day and the night so much with writing."


Harter, Carol C. and Thompson, James R., John Irving, Twayne, 1986.

John Irving, edited by Harold Bloom, Chelsea House, 2001.


Los Angeles Times, September 4, 1994.

Maclean's, July 23, 2001.

Mother Jones, May/June 1997.

New York Times, April 25, 1989; April 28, 1998; August 1, 2001.

People, July 30, 2001.

Publishers Weekly, October 25, 1999.

Variety, April 23, 2001.


Contemporary Novelists, reproduced in Biography Resource Center, (November 9, 2001).

Joan Smith, "The Salon Interview: John Irving," (October 26, 2001).

"John Irving/Author Biography," (November 13, 2001). □

Irving, John (Winslow)

views updated May 21 2018

IRVING, John (Winslow)

IRVING, John (Winslow). American, b. 1942. Genres: Novels. Career: University of Iowa, writer-in-residence, 1972-75; Mount Holyoke College, Dept. of English, associate professor, 1975-78; Brandeis Univesity, writer-inresidence, 1979-80; Northfield Mt. Hermon School, assistant wrestling coach, 1981-83; Fessenden School, assistant wrestling coach, 1984-86; Vermont Academy, head wrestling coach, 1987-89. Publications: Setting Free the Bears, 1968; The Water-Method Man, 1972; The 158-Pound Marriage, 1974; The World According to Garp, 1978; The Hotel New Hampshire, 1981; The Cider House Rules (novel), 1985, (screenplay), 1999; A Prayer for Owen Meany, 1989; A Son of the Circus, 1994; Trying to Save Piggy Sneed, 1996; A Widow for One Year, 1998; My Movie Business: A Memoir, 1999; The Fourth Hand, 2001.

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John Irving

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