Best & Worst of John Irving

Best & WorstEach 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.

John_IrvingI 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.

CiderHouseIn 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.

Until I Find YouThe 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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21 Responses to Best & Worst of John Irving

  1. Sandy says:

    First of all, I must say that your guest blogger today, John, is an excellent writer. Wonderful post. And I have only read one John Irving…Last Night in Twisted River…for book club. I thought he was a good storyteller but so much of the story was laborious and overblown. One gentleman in our book club had read everything Irving had ever written and said that it was “same old same old”, basically the same thing John is saying here. Irving recycles. I really DO need to read Owen Meany or Cider House Rules someday though.

    • John says:

      Thanks, Sandy, for the compliment. I thought maybe Alyce would catch a few of my typos but, alas, there they are up above to embarrass me. I like my little accidental Cockney bit “The book what turned me off…” Should be “The book that turned me off…” [sigh]

      It’s a shame that Irving (like many other writers I have since discovered) perfers to recycle rather than to invent at this late stage in his career. Do track down a copy of Cider House Rules. You won’t be disappointed.

  2. An author I really must read. I loved the film version of Cider House Rules and keep meaning to pick up a copy of the book.

    • The first and best Irving is The World According to Garp.
      Distant second is The Hotel New Hampshire.
      I too get turned off by the books that recycle but if you stop with these you will not be disappointed.
      Want more- go to Cinder House.

  3. I loved Owen Meany and Garp but haven’t read any of Irving’s other work. My sister adored Cider House Rules, too, so it sounds like I should seek that book out.

  4. Excellent post, John! I have liked John Irving’s books, and his writing style, from the time I read my first book by him, “The World According to Garp” followed by several others. Unfortunately, I haven’t got around to reading “The Cider House Rules” and A Prayer for Owen Meany” both of which I have. I have heard lots of good things about these two books and I am happy that you approve of them. The one book of his that put me off was “The 158-Pound Marriage” which is about two married couples playing swap for little more than sex. On the other hand, I liked “The Hotel New Hampshire” minus the overdose of incest. Was it really necessary? Jarred my sensibilities. I like Irving’s work in spite of the recycling of characters, places, animals, prostitutes, and sex. It’s a formula that seems to have worked well.

    • John says:

      Prashant –

      Thanks for stopping by Alyce’s place. She has an addictive blog. I found myself poring over several of the “Best & Worst” posts last night and had to force myself to stop when I saw it was well past midnight.

      I like the old Irving best. I cant’ get into his most recent books. the last three have left me wanting. Though I am very tempted to read his latest which is written for his gay son and was inspired by his own education and life lessons dealing with their somewhat rocky relationship.

      Have you read A SON OF THE CIRCUS? I’d very much be interested to hear the opinion of a reader who lives in India regarding that very strange but fascinating book. I sure learned a lot about India moviemaking and the subculture of the hijra.

      • John, I ought to have thanked Alyce first for inviting you to write for the Best & Worst Series and me for commenting on it. I will be going through her blog and check out the reviews and other B&W series. I have skimmed through here and found a lot of fascinating stuff to read.

        I deliberately left out “A Son of the Circus” as I have just started reading it. Irving says the novel is not about India but that it is set in India and that it is about an Indian who is *not* an Indian. I have read 20-odd pages so far and I think I know what he means by stating that the book is not about India. I’ll have to read further about Dr. Daruwalla, the Indian without a country, culture or religion and find out more about Irving’s imagined India. I find his prose tedious at times though not tedious enough to make me want to put it away.

  5. Alyce says:

    John you really did write an excellent post here! I am a little embarrassed to say that I haven’t read any of his books yet. I do own a few of them, including Garp and Owen Meany. I remember vividly the first time I saw the movie adaptation of Garp and how stunned I was by it. I think part of the reason I’ve been holding off from reading that particular book, is to let the memory of the movie fade a bit more in my mind so that I can take the book for what it is without my impressions of the movie interfering.

    Thanks so much for writing this guest post!

    • John says:

      Thanks for having me, Alyce. I’ve always wanted to air my thoughts on John Irving.

      Garp the book is VERY different from Garp the movie. I prefer the book. The movie is fairly true to certain incidents in the plot, but much is added and altered. I thought Glenn Close was perfect as Jenny. John Lithgow, though not at all how I pictured Roberta Muldoon, was rather amazing too. Robin Williams is not at all how I picture Garp. Not one bit. But he did grow on me especially when Garp becomes a father and Williams really shines in those scenes with his sons. I thought the way the Ellen Jamesians were handled in the movie trivialized one of the most powerful parts of the book. Highly recommend you read that one and Owen Meany and Cider House which I will always view as the standout in his work — a real breakaway novel. Those are my top three Irving novels.

  6. Jenners says:

    I dabbled in Irving but stuck with the earliest (and best!) stuff. Sounds like I don’t need to go back and read his later stuff as apparently I’ve already read a version of them.

  7. I am RIGHT THERE with you on Cider House Rules. I found it profoundly moving at a similar time in my own life, and Homer and Dr. Larch “lived with” me for a long time. I would think of them often, and they’re still quite vivid in my mind. Sadly, I haven’t gotten through any other Irving novels. The pieces that I’ve read alone seem to be repetitive. Maybe one day I’ll try again.

  8. I hate to admit it, but I haven’t read any of John Irving’s work. At this stage of the game, I probably won’t….but I’m not gonna say never. And if anybody could make me want to, it’s you, John. I’m very tempted to head to the library…..(but then I think of all those vintage mysteries that you’ve already added to my TBR list……and I resist). Wonderfully well-written post!

  9. bookworm says:

    What a great idea for a blog feature. I have yet to read John Irving but I have Cider House Rules on my wish list. Wonderful post. It is sad when a favorite author begins to almost re-write their work to the point of the reader thinking ‘been there, done that’.

  10. Jenny says:

    This is a great post and very helpful! It’s so disappointing when such a well loved author starts turning out work that isn’t as good and doesn’t seem to feel like the best effort was put into it.

  11. John: I enjoyed your thoughtful analysis of the best and worst of Irving. I have not read any of his books. Your post makes me want to delve into the best.

  12. Melissa says:

    Great post! I’ve gone back and forth on Irving. I loved The Prayer for Owen Meany, but then New Hampshire Hotel and Garp didn’t really work for me. I’d almost given up on him, but I think I’ll try The Cider House Rules. Thanks!

  13. Kell says:

    Oh come now–how on earth can you comment on an author or the quality of the work, or whether or not that author is “recycling” older works, if you have ***never*** read that particular author.

    I might be risking offending some readers here,but I am going to say it anyway: Irving’s works (or most of them) are not for the “masses.” They are not works of fiction. Irving’s works are pieces of literature they are literature. If you cannot see (hear/read) the allusions to other exalted writers of fine literature, that’s fine, enjoy the ride; but don’t deny that these are indeed works of literary art meant primarily for those who are very well read in the so-called classics. You cannot, for example, read A Prayer For Owen Meany and not sense Nathaniel Hawthorne, Thomas Hardy, and even smidgeons of Margaret Atwood. They’re in there, as are mythological archetypes too–virgin birth? You want to teach that, in a way that does not force Christianity by the power of myth? It’s also in there.

    If you want to teach symbolism, use Owen Meany. If you want to teach or understand sociology and contemporary history (Viet Nam is all over this book). If you want to understand the poison that television is–read this book.

    If you want to laugh and to cry, read this book.

    Owen Meany is usually credited as Irving’s magnum opus, and maybe it is; but he has other great works, and for anyone who has not even put the effort into reading one of these works to “agree” that an author is “recycling” his characters is lazy at best. Every author, no matter what their favored genre, is going to have some similarities–where is al the uproar about the folksy types who inhabit Dickens’s works? Not there, because everyone is too afraid to say so? But it’s fair criticism of Irving because he dares to make some of his political stances clear in his writing (but not all of them–read them and then you can say yes or no). I for one absolutely adore the large, athletic, tough, usually Germanic blondes in Irving’s works. The Melony of Cider House Rules is nothing, not one bit like Biggie from Water Method Man, but the visual is fantastic. We know it’s cold, and we know these big, blonde, strong women can handle cold. That’s all we need to know, really.

    What I really don’t get it anyone seeing Widow For One Year as Garp told in reverse? Was that it? I can’t see that at all! Huh? Come again? Little girl is born to parents who’ve lost their natural born sons years before in a tragic accident and cannot recover from the grief …. is anything like young, tragic, poverty stricken women living in New England without the freedom of choice to do what they see fit with their own pregnant bodies …. and the doctor and his protege who care for them? Huh? These stories are not at all the same story, yet both are great stories, well worth your time. I myself place Widow higher on my personal list than Cider House, but to each his or her own. Both are great stories that deserve and should be told.

    As far as the worst of John Irving? I’m not a critic. I don’t even like the idea of bringing up that topic, especially in a forum where some of the participants have not read one word of the author. I’d read Irving’s “worst” before I’d read 99% of anything published today, that’s for sure. I like literature. I do not ask to be “entertained.” I want to be forced to think. Many thanks to John Irving for making me do just that for over twenty years now. I’m still trying to be of some use and yes, by now, I also get it, that sorrow does indeed float.

    • John says:

      My post is an opinion, my friend. You’re welcome to disagree, but the diatribe against the other readers of this blog is really uncalled for and borders on the kind of juvenile ranting you find in the comments of amazon.com reviews. (The “How can you like this? It’s awful?” kind of garbage.) But you make a huge mistake in your diatribe that reveals you as a careless reader yourself.

      I did not compare Widow for One Year to The Cider House Rules which is what you do above. I compared Widow for One Year to The World According to Garp. They are both about writers and the writer’s life. And I did not say it was “Garp in reverse.” I said it was like a “rewrite of …Garp [told] from a women’s point of view.” Admittedly, this is a huge generalization, but it is still my opinion. Clearly you did not read my post very carefully. Not exactly a good thing to reveal about yourself after you attack the blog readers for giving opinions on Irving without having read his books.

  14. erichK says:

    My introduction to John Irving, who I had not previously considered a serious writer, was actually through reading A WIDOW FOR A YEAR. While no great work of literature and overlong, expecially in the tedious final chapters, was better than expected. So I ordered GARP at the library, but they got the movie rather than the book, which, at the point of Garp’s driving the baby-sitter to a secluded spot became so predictable that I found better things to do -like read this blog. Won’t bother with much more of Irving, though I may try CIDER HOUSE. There are so many better books and authors to read!

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