Each Wednesday I feature a guest post by a book blogger detailing which books they think are the “best” and “worst” by the author of their choice. Visit the series page for more information about the guest bloggers, the featured authors, and the sign-up form.
Please welcome today’s guest blogger: John from Pretty Sinister Books, who will be discussing the best and worst of John Irving.
I used to love to introduce my friends to the world of John Irving. For decades he was the one writer whose work I looked forward to being published. This was back in the days when you really had to wait for books to be in stores an didn’t have the luxury of pre-ordering them online. He was introduced to me by a friend in college who raved over The World According to Garp long before it had been made into a movie. And I lapped up every bit of that book with its unusual characters, outrageous incidents and catch phrases that have since become iconic mantras for the cult of Irving. “Beware the Under-toad!” was at one time a popular phrase seen spray painted on highway underpasses and scrawled in public bathrooms, believe it or not, in my college days.
When it comes to picking my favorite novel by John Irving it at first seems a disquieting task. Do I go for the all out favorite A Prayer for Owen Meany? Do I choose his odd but strangely moving debut that gave us his obsession with bears, Austrian pensions and motorcycles Setting Free The Bears? Or do I surprise everyone with something else?
I have to choose the one book out of his entire bibliography that profoundly moved me on so many levels. I read it at a time when I was beginning my own adventure into the world of adulthood, when I was soon to break away from all the familiar and safe parts of my life to move into an unknown city completely on my own with only $800 in my pocket and not a friend to greet me in the Windy City. The book I read at that time in my life was The Cider House Rules. And it was an epiphany for me.
In this tale set in a long ago New England that Irving knows so well we have no bears, no motorcycles or Austrian pensions. There are no cunning catch phrases like “Beware the Under Toad!” or “Sorrow Floats” you can latch onto as a form of pop culture graffiti. Instead Irving took a good five years of his life to write what is in essence a love letter to his literary hero Charles Dickens. His homage is chockfull of all things Dickensian — orphans, a childhood of hardship, cruelty and big life lessons, heros and heroines who come in the strangest of guises.
Homer Wells, learns from his father figure Dr. Wilbur Larch, to be the best kind of man, to treat women with kindness and compassion. He learns most of these lessons while serving as an apprentice to a physician known for being the only man in town who will perform abortions. But the book is never a novel that uses the story and characters to exploit a sociopolitical platform on a woman’s right to choose or any other hot topic associated with that medical procedure.
The characters in The Cider House Rules more than anything make this book one of my lifelong favorites. If you have seen the movie version — with a skillfully adapted screenplay by John Irving from his dense novel — you do not know the real story of the novel. The lives of so many characters are never seen in the movie. The nurses and women especially get the short shrift in the movie, In fact, my favorite female character — the wild Melony who escapes Dr. Larch’s home — is completely absent from the movie. Gone too is the true message of living a life of purpose and finding a reason to be of use in the world. Most importantly, Irving’s love of storytelling shines through in the narrative, the frequent literary allusions and the rich prose sections. Books become powerful tools, a way to escape the confines of the sometimes oppressive orphanage. The orphans fall in love with Dickens and Bronte. Melony even flees carrying a copy of Jane Eyre with her.
Following The Cider House Rules Irving pledged to spend a full four years in order to write each novel afterwards. But around the time of A Widow for One Year I began to grow tired of what appeared to be the lazy writer’s habit of recycling his earlier novels. Widow felt like a rewrite of Garp from a woman’s point of view. Then came The Fourth Hand a comparatively slight novel with an odd premise that seemed to be a rewrite of A Son of the Circus set in the US with its emphasis on hand surgery and orthopedics echoing the story of the surgeons of India in that earlier bizarre novel often dismissed as Irving’s worst and most lurid novel. Is that my nominee for his worst? Oh no, my friends.
The book that turned me off John Irving for life was his dreary and turgid rehash titled Until I Find You. Here he recycles his ideas of the expatriate American living in Canada so well done in Owen Meany and couples it with previous themes of absent fathers and the boy-man learning to be a better man in the company of women. Also we get more wrestling, more of the writer’s life, and lots of unconventional sexual relationships. I’m no prude, my friends, but I get tired of a writer who just digs out his old novels and rewrites them when he really has nothing left to say. I never finished the book and I’ve never been able to finish any of Irving’s books published since.
Sometimes a writer so entrances us with his imaginative powers early in his career we keep hoping he can dazzle us anew again and again in each book. I think John Irving has said all he can say for me. I choose to remember my first encounters like the books I mention above and being dazzled. And I’d prefer to reread Garp, Cider House, Owen Meany or even Setting Free The Bears than to read anything new he might have to offer in the future.
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