Give a workaholic writer with an overactive imagination some grown-up themes to wrestle with, and you get more than a wild new novel. You get a whole new life.
By JOHN PAUL NEWPORT
Photographs by MARY ELLEN MARK
BEFORE JOHN IRVING went to India four years ago to research his new novel, A Son of the Circus, he compiled a modest list of people and places to see: dwarfs in a traveling circus; the brothels of Bombay's notorious Falkland Road; a veteran Indian homicide detective, the inside of a Raj-style sports club; some transvestites known as hijras who mutilate their own genitalia, ; and various other exotic attractions. He also wanted to smell the breath of a hippopotamus.
Irving's approach to sightseeing differed from that of normal visitors, even apart from the peculiar nature of his itinerary. For one thing, he demanded to see everything on his list more than once. "It wasn't enough to be in one brothel at one time of day, I had to be in several brothels at all times of the day and night," he said. I wanted to be in that police station in the early morning light and in the torpor of midday and late in the day when people were trying to get the hell out and the typewriters were quieting down."
Irving with his wife and agent Janet: “I write ‘em and she sells ‘em.”
Odder still, Irving refused to look at anything that wasn't on the list. 'People kept saying, 'Do you want to see this? Do you want to see that?' And I would say, No. Don't take me there, because it's not in the story.' I wanted to step directly from the calm of a Jesuit mission into a car, put my head between my knees and wake up at the next place I needed to see."
The notion of an internationally acclaimed novelist cruising around India on his first-ever visit with his head between his knees goes against type. But that's John Irving for you. Irving is a man who insists on control, if not of other people then at least of the fictional worlds he creates in his head. Before venturing to India he had plotted and cast the entire novel; all he lacked were a few furnishings. Uppermost in his mind during his month-long stay, he said, was the reader: "I wanted to get the atmosphere of these particular places down as my characters would see them. In between, what did it matter? What did it matter what I wanted to see?"
Smelling the breath of a hippopotamus was the only agenda item he failed to pull off, at least while in India. But later he did sweet-talk an employee at the Toronto Zoo into arranging an encounter. ("It smells like a bad drawer in your refrigerator," he reported. 'The old-lettuce drawer.")
Irving is nothing if not dogged. "When I'm writing a book," he said, "I'm a horse with blinders on." Doggedness permeates every aspect of his life: the pounding, repetitive rhythm of his prose, the arc of his career, the loyalty he feels for friends and family, the obsessive discipline of his daily workout regime - all shot through with doggedness. Doggedness, thy name is Irving.
AT 52, JOHN IRVING is no longer the boy wonder of literature - if only because, even metaphorically, he can no longer be considered a boy. The success he achieved in 1978 with The World According to Garp was stunning. The novel reaped lofty critical praise, including a National Book Award nomination, and mass popularity. It brought Irving fame and money.
The fame he seemed to enjoy. He stared saucily into the camera for the cover of Time and posed in a skimpy wrestling singlet for Vanity Fair. His acclaim spread abroad, where it may be even greater than it is in the U.S. In France - where he was recently awarded the Prix des Librairies du Grand Sud - it even rivals that of Jerry Lewis. "Fame needn't be a nuisance provided you don't wallow in it," he said.
But the money has proved more important to Irving. He sold the paperback rights to the novel following Garp, The Hotel New Hampshire, for $2.3 million. Each of his subsequent books - The Cider House Rules and A Prayer for Owen Meany - was a bestseller, too. Although there were reports of Irving appearing on the party circuit, he didn't use the money to finance a flamboyant lifestyle; rather, he used it to escape the dreary teaching jobs and the perpetual scrambling for grants. "Money is a big help for the writer of long novels," he said, "because long novels take time."
In the 16 years since Garp, a lot has happened to Irving. He has divorced the woman he married at 22; moved from Vermont to New York City (and the Hamptons) and back to Vermont; met and married Janet Turnbull, who now serves as his agent and first reader; built a mansion on top of a mountain; and fathered a son, his third, now three years old. Friends say Irving seems happier than ever. 'There's a great fullness in his life that he didn't have in New York, or even really in his first marriage," said David Warren, a sometime novelist who is one of Irving's oldest buddies. 'Where he lives now is the first home he can bring his friends into comfortably. I think he expects to live there for the rest of his life."
But the one thing that hasn't changed, despite the success and middleage contentment, is his tenacity. During the three or four years it takes to write a novel, Irving works from early morning until late afternoon, seven days a week. "1 may not be the most gifted writer in the world," he told a friend recently, "but by God, I can revise. I can bring more stamina to a book than just about anyone."
Such self-deprecating honesty is a likable part of Irving's personality. But to those around him, even friends, the self-revelations only go so deep. The man behind the personality remains stubbornly elusive. "He's cagey about himself," said friend and writer Frank Conroy. "I don't think I've ever really seen past the public persona."
IRVING'S HOUSE OCCUPIES very J high ground above the Manchester Valley of Vermont. Approached from below, past several obscure turns on old logging roads and finally up a gravel driveway lined with elms, the house is the kind of fortress-residence where one might expect to find a James Bond villain.
The man who steps out of the kitchen to shake your hand is no sneering master criminal, but neither is he exactly a golden retriever. He accepts the bottle of wine you offer with sincere interest in its merit, but his graciousness is formal, subdued, considered. At five foot eight and 165 pounds, Irving is short and fit. He is good-looking, but not nearly so dashing as the tanned face that stares out from the back of book jackets around the world. His pug features have softened around the edges. Almost entirely absent is the hopped-up exuberance of a man who, like his famous creation, Garp, used to chase down cars on foot to tell drivers they were going too fast.
Irving is cooking dinner: breast of chicken, potatoes sautéed with yellow pepper, asparagus and a compote for dessert. He moves easily around the granite counter tops and restaurant-style range of his kitchen. At least four nights a week he prepares the evening meal for his non-cooking wife and son. "You can write all day and not turn out anything, but at least in the
kitchen you always have something to show for your efforts," he said.
In the adjacent living area, with its blond wood, Persian carpets and spectacular view of the late-day mountains, Janet Turnbull Irving sits playing with the couple's towheaded moppet, Everett. The routine Irving puttering in the kitchen, his family nearby - seems to be a familiar one. Janet is a tall and handsome woman, 40, who met Irving in June of 1986. At the time she was his Canadian publisher, and in that capacity threw a dinner party in his honor upon the publication of The Cider House Rules. When Irving returned home to Long Island, he thought about her for a couple of months and eventually wrote her a letter; they had their first date in September and married the following summer.
"We're in the same business, and I like that," Irving said. "I write 'em and she sells 'em. That way we keep the commission in the family." Janet's professional stature - her other clients include the Canadian novelist Robertson Davies and many other well-known authors - is one reason the marriage seems to work so well. 'She never seemed to be the least bit fazed by John's celebrity," said David Warren. "His first wife probably wanted a life of her own. Janet had a life of her own and wanted a family." (Irving's early first marriage to Shyla Leary produced two sons, Cohn, now 29, and Brendan, 25. All Irving will say about that union is "Anyone who was married 18 years can't speak only badly about it, and I don't, either."
On the mat with his three-year-old son, Everett, and longtime wrestling nemesis, “Bill”
Janet runs her business primarily out of an office above Irving's at home. They share an assistant. But to accommodate her Canadian clients, the couple spends about one week out of every five or six at an apartment in Toronto; they also have a cottage on Lake Huron. The proximity to Canada is the major reason the Irvings decided three years ago to build their new house where they did.
Like any agent worth her salt, Janet Irving says adoring things about her client/husband. "You could have written the Vietnam novel," she chimed in when somehow the conversation turned to the war. Irving had been explaining how he escaped the draft by being the sole source of support for his first wife and two children. "Actually, you already have!" she added quickly, apparently remembering what a central role Vietnam played in A Prayer for Owen Meany.
"I was about to say," Irving responded, feigning hurt, before decreeing that really Tim O'Brien's Going After Cacciato is the best-ever Vietnam novel. But he disparages authors who seem content to write one novel after another about their Vietnam experiences. "I would never write anything that was autobiographical to that extent," he said.
Nevertheless, Irving's novels can at times seem like a surreal projection of his life - and vice versa. Standing in the kitchen of his mountaintop retreat, chatting about family life and literary reputation, I was smack in the middle of an eerie parallel to this passage from Garp:
"I would rather be rich and wholly outside caring about what the idiots call 'serious,'" [Garp] told [his agent]. But who is ever outside caring about that? Garp actually felt that he could buy a sort of isolation from the real and terrible world. He imagined a kind of fort where he and Duncan and Helen (and a new baby) could live unmolested, even untouched by what he called "the rest of life."
AFTER DINNER IT’S OFF to the gym with Everett for a little light wrestling. The gym, which Irving calls his major "eccentricity," is a large, high-ceilinged room that occupies, with its attached shower room and changing area, pretty much an entire wing of the house. Grouped in a large bay window overlooking the pool are a stationary bike, a treadmill, jump ropes and a free-weight area. The central feature of the gym, however, is a red full-scale wrestling ring.
Wrestling is Irving's trademark. It figured centrally in Garp (Irving appeared in the movie version as a referee) and tangentially in many of his other books. He was captain of his prep-school team at Phillips Exeter Academy and competed less successfully in college at the University of Pittsburgh. After he transferred to the University of New Hampshire, he continued wrestling in A.A.U. meets until he was 34.
Even so, Irving is modest about his talents. He said that his wrestling coach at Exeter once told him: "You are not an athlete. But you love the sport and you understand it, and if you can keep a match close, you will sometimes be able to beat athletes much better than you - once but not twice, because they won't be fooled a second time." Irving seems more proud of how far sheer doggedness got him as a wrestler than of his actual victories.
He still trains for wrestling every day, almost without exception, immediately after he finishes writing. "A large part of it is I just want to feel good the next day," he said - the workouts give him the stamina he needs for a day behind the desk. In a typical session, Irving will skip rope for 45 minutes or so, do a series of neck-strengthening stretches and calisthenics, ride the bike or run on the treadmill and do a modest free-weight routine. He usually spends 90 minutes in a sweat. "I do all the training I used to do, only without the actual wrestling," he said. That way I don't get hurt."
Irving’s home gym is his major “eccentricity.”
Injuries are not a hypothetical concern. At one point or another, he coached both of his older boys' prep-school wrestling squads - Brendan's while Irving was in his forties. To manage this, he and Janet had to spend two long Vermont winters in a rented house near the Vermont Academy campus. At that age, Irving should not have considered suiting up and sparring on the mat with his charges, but he did. The result was two knee operations, followed by an elbow injury (and surgery) after a casual match at home with Cohn. "All of it basically caused by an old fart rolling around when he shouldn't have been," Irving said.
With Everett, however, Irving wasn't executing any takedown moves; he merely dandled and swung his toddler around the mats like any fond father would do. But he did demonstrate a few quick wrestling throws on Bill," the 120-pound stitched-leather dummy that Irving purchased 20 years ago. Slam! went Bill. Everett clapped with delight.
Surrounding the ring, like a frieze high on the walls, are perhaps 100 framed wrestling photographs of Irving and/or his older sons. Some of the pictures are off-putting: the three nearly naked wrestlers lounging and posing intimately like ancient Greek athletes. But Irving does not shy away from sexual imagery, in his books or otherwise. The drawing that occupies the honored position over the main couch in the living room is by fellow novelist Günter Grass and depicts a grown man suckling at the bosom of a three-breasted woman.
Though Irving claims he won't push wrestling on Everett, it's hard to see how the boy, growing up with a father who retreats every afternoon to a full-sized wrestling gym, will be able to resist. "I'm not doing this again because I did it badly the first time," Irving said about starting his second family, "but because I enjoyed it so much the first time around."
FOR A MAN WHOSE BOOKS are filled with characters searching for lost fathers and family, you might think that Irving would have more curiosity about what became of his own father. "I don't know," he said with uncharacteristic terseness when asked. After a pause, he added, "He and my mother were married and divorced before I was born. I don't know whether he's living or dead."
The man he usually refers to as his father, Cohn Irving, taught Russian history and literature and served as an administrator at Exeter before retiring in 1986. He married Irving's mother and legally adopted the future author when John was six. Irving's original name was John Wallace Blunt - a name Irving finds ironic given the prolixity of his novels.
"I feel I had a pretty happy childhood, even before my mother married my stepfather," Irving said. "I'm sure some future literary biographer will attribute this and that character or motivation to the business about my father, but the fact is I never had anything to rebel against like most kids do in their late teens, so I never had any motivation to search for my father." He said the only solid information he had about his father came from a couple of newspaper clips describing how, in World War II, his plane was shot down over Burma and he hiked to freedom in China. That exploit served as the basis for a similar incident involving Wally Worthington in The Cider House Rules.
Though Irving protests when people insist that incidents in his books must have really happened, all of his novels are chockablock with anecdotes and settings adapted from his life. His first book, Setting Free the Bears, published in 1968, is a 1960s-era fable of liberating the zoo animals in Vienna, where Irving spent two years studying. The Water-Method Man (1972) is a comic novel of manners about life among graduate students,
take place at his club and a whorehouse in the red-light district. ("Let them talk about autobiography now!" Irving exulted.)
The theme of the novel is Dr. Daruwalla's sense of not belonging either in Canada or in India - and his interior quest to forge an identity for himself. Irving can trace the genesis of many of his novels to a single moment. For Garp, it was the flash inspiration of a sentence that ultimately became the novel's tag line: "In the world according to Garp, we are all terminal cases." In the case of A Son of the Circus, Irving's illuminating mo-
written after Irving's postgraduate days at the University of Iowa. Next came The 158-Pound Marriage (1974), another comic novel about mate swapping in a university community; while composing this book, Irving taught at the University of Iowa's Writers' Workshop.
Garp was, of course, Irving's breakout book: a hard-to-summarize opus about a university teacher whose mother is a famous feminist (and who never really knew the man who fathered her son). He started Garp while still in Iowa, where, novelist Gail Godwin remembered, Irving and Shyla lived in a cramped apartment with their toddler and newborn. "John had made this little office for himself out of a tiny closet," she said. "He had his typewriter in there and had posted cards and various letters of acceptance on the walls to bolster himself. Shyla was taking classes, so John did a lot of the child care. He would come by with the stroller, and we would complain about how the world didn't recognize how great we were."
Irving was "one of the most motherly fathers I've ever met," Godwin said. He composed long lists of things he worried might happen to his children, a paranoia that also afflicts T.S. Garp. '1 think the novel really purged him of those worries, in a way," she said. 'It was full of a lot of the rage and anxiety he was secretly feeling at the time."
After the success of Garp, Irving's novels entered a more reflective phase. Though still filled with story and incident, they also addressed the larger issues of the day- entertainingly but often ambiguously, much like the author himself. The Hotel New Hampshire depicts an eccentric, sexually conflicted family that runs a series of hotels in New England and Vienna. The Cider House Rules centers on the filial relationship between an unadoptable orphan and the old, childless director of the orphanage; it makes a strong but far from simplistic argument for abortion rights. Irving's seventh novel, A Prayer for Owen Meany, takes place in a fictional town very much like the Exeter where Irving grew up; in it, a prep-school faculty member adopts the first-person narrator, who doesn't know who his real father is. The substance of the novel deals with the possibility of religious miracle and the damage done, even to nonparticipants, by the Vietnam War.
Irving considers his last two novels his most fully realized. "I was much more in control," he said. They set a new standard for me. I mean technically. And writing is technical. I hate people who moan too much about 'art,' about some kind of spiritual passion for a sacred work; writing is craft - it's building something. I'm a better builder than I used to be."
IRVING BELIEVES ASon of the Circus is his best-built novel yet. Like its predecessors, it is jammed with comic, poignant, Irvingesque characters, from crippled beggars to identical twins separated at birth. Even so, the novel is a major departure.
The protagonist is 60-ish Dr. Farrokh Daruwalla, a Bombay-born orthopedist who has long since settled in Toronto. Despite being thoroughly Westernized, and married to a Vienna-born woman, Daruwalla is irresistibly drawn back to India, where he pursues his twin avocations of searching for the gene that causes dwarf achondroplasia and anonymously writing police-drama screenplays. (In an improbable twist, scientists this past summer actually did identify, quite by accident, the gene that the fictional Daruwalla was looking for.) While in India, the doctor is caught up in the investigation of a series of murders, some of which
ment was a glimpse in Toronto of a well-dressed foreigner, standing beneath a street light on a snowy evening, being regarded with prejudicial suspicion by passersby. Irving began to wonder: Who is this guy? Where did he come from and why? Where does he feel at home?
"It seems to me that readers who like what I do will like this novel," Irving said. 'There's more of it, in a way: more complications, more interconnectedness, more intricacy." But he admits the novel is essentially unlike his others - and not just because most of the action takes place in India. "What's different is that in most of my novels, childhood and adolescence comprise probably at least half the story. I feel very keenly about childhood. I would say that childhood is the most important part of our life in terms of who we become, and parents who don't understand that ought to sterilize themselves or something. But it's not important in this book. Here I made the jump for the first time to a character who is almost a decade older than I am, and tried to imagine what it would be like to look back on life when all the big decisions are behind you."
Gail Godwin rates Dr. Danswalla as her favorite among all Irving's creations. 'Daniwalla is a character I aspire to be myself," she said. "By the end of the novel, he has gone beyond his who-ness and his where-ness and is really living out his what-ness. He learns exactly what he is, a doctor helping others as best he can." living, having finally achieved some measure of settledness himself, has written his first wholly grown-up novel.
IRVING'S OFFICE IN Vermont overlooks the flagstone terrace of his home, the manicured lawn and 50 miles or more of Green Mountain landscape. In the distance, the perfect white steeple of the Congregational Church in Manchester pokes through the forest canopy. Little people in little cars putter up and down the storybook lanes. The world is an orderly place from this perspective, just like the fictional worlds in Irving's mind.
Nothing animates the author more than to lean back in the swivel chair in his office, legs twitching with relish, feet dangling just shy of the floor, and talk about writing. Irving somehow manages .- slyly, tenaciously - to maneuver any conversation you have with him, no matter how personal the intent of the questions, back to this subject. It is where he feels most safe.
"My novels are not for everyone," he said. "If people say, 'Well, he's too bizarre for me, there's too much sexual explicitness, and there are too many parentheses and semicolons and the chapters are 70 pages long, and by the time you've read 150 pages you still don't know what the main story is because so many other stories have been started,' I say, 'Right! Right!' If you don't like it, go read Hemingway. Go read a newspaper."
Irving bristles at criticism of his work that he considers unfounded specifically, reviews by critics predisposed toward the type of modern, minimalist fiction that he disdains ("those 89-page novels with type large enough for the legally blind that are all about what somebody had for lunch"). He writes in the longer-form, 19th-century style. 'The bigger a novel, the better, as far as I'm concerned," he said, conveying an almost macho pride that his novels, by golly, are long.
Irving believes that the purpose of a novel, above all, is to entertain. "Dickens was an entertainer. Tolstoy was an entertainer. Flaubert was an entertainer. And if you can't entertain an audience - if you can't grab their attention and make it build - you ought not to be writing a novel. You know? Why not write a tome?"
Irving is without question a brilliant and imaginative storyteller, "one of the very best we have," according to novelist Peter Matthiessen. Some feel, however, that his relentless taste for the bizarre sometimes gets in the way of his readers' ability to suspend their disbelief. And one does wonder why this solid burgher on the mountaintop seems so obsessed with transvestites, prostitutes, masturbation, dildos, violent sexual assault and the like.
Irving's first response to this criticism is to deny that these phenomena are really that unusual. "When 5,000 people in Bombay are ritualistically emasculating themselves to become a recognized third gender [he was referring to the hijra cult described in A Son of the Circus, whose members slice off their penises and testicles with one swipe of a knife, then deliberately let the wounds suppurate for weeks until, once healed, they resemble a vagina], that's too many people doing it to call it bizarre," he said. "1 can't overcome the limitations of some of my readers' imaginations."
What is it about penises, then? One of Irving's most famous scenes occurs in Garp, when Garp's wife accidentally bites off the penis of her boyfriend. (And this was before John Bobbitt.) In Irving's novels, untoward things happen to penises with disturbing regularity.
Irving laughed and denied he is trying to say anything profound about virility or masculinity or impotence by the recurrence of penises. "I guess I like penises because they sort of get your attention in a story, by witness how many people seem to talk about them," he said.
He paused to collect his thoughts. "Sexuality has been one of the longkept secrets of human life," he said. "It causes people a lot of grief. I write about this, in my way. I guess one reason it causes so much attention is because it's still titillating. Well, if sexuality were more explicitly addressed and more openly written about instead of being hysterically written about or hysterically repressed, I don't think people would notice the penises, or the lopping off of them, in my novels as much as they do.
"I'll tell you one thing," he added. "Only in North America do I get asked about penises... They don't even ask me about them in England, and we all know how uptight the English are. But they're not as uptight as we are."
LINING THE HALLS of Irving's house are low cases filled with numerous hardback copies of his books. Surrounding the third-floor pool table are posters from the movies and plays that have been based on his work, and bookcases containing volumes of his foreign translations. Enlarged covers of all his novels hang on his office wall, as does a poster-sized, framed copy of a New York Times bestseller list with The Cider House Rules in the numberone position. His office - and, indeed, the whole house - is really just a larger version of the little study-closet back in Iowa, where the letters and notices were tacked up to bolster his spirits.
Like most writers, Irving prefers rewriting to churning out the original draft. '1 never tire of revision, I could do it forever," he said. And he pretty nearly does. By his own admission, A Son of the Circus is Irving's most revised book. Some sections, he estimated, have gone through more than 100 iterations, while the novel as a whole has been significantly overhauled at least three times. Actually, Irving wrote a screenplay based on a circus-related story within the eventual novel before he began working on the novel proper. At one time, the point-of-view character was a female novelist instead of Dr. Daruwalla. All the permutations boggle the mind.
In the course of writing Circus, Irving relied on more than a dozen readers for critiques. In addition to his usual crew - Janet Irving; Godwin; novelists Peter Matthiessen, Craig Nova and Ron Hansen; his editor Harvey Ginsberg and others - this time he turned to four Indian friends. Irving was tormented that some unlikely or unrealistic detail might slip through. "If even one of the four Indians had any trouble at all with any scene, I would revise it until all four agreed that it was right," he said.
"Even so, I didn't get everything right," he added. On page 294, the Latin translation should read to the greater glory,' but instead it reads to the great glory.' We'll be sure to correct that in subsequent versions."
I asked Irving what drove him to work so hard. After a characteristically long and thoughtful pause, he said, "I don't think we can exercise much control over those instincts we have for neatness, cleanliness and other anal fixations of a perfectionist kind. I think why I work so hard is simply an outgrowth of the fact that I'm very fussy about some things. I'm certainly not fussy about all things. My cars seem to self-destruct on a regular basis. I can't remember to change the oil, and I don't think I've washed a car in my life. But certain basic things - kitchen things, the health of my children - those I'm extremely fussy about. And I feel that way about books, too."
At first this struck me as a very fine answer indeed: forthcoming, amusing, self-aware. But like many of Irving's statements about himself, it soon had me scratching my head. All he had said, I realized, was that he works so hard because he works so hard - he's fussy.
More than once in our interviews Irving mentioned the importance of what he calls reader chronology: meting out the right information at just the right time to propel the plot, but never too much. "Deliberately leading and misleading the reader is part of the storytelling process," he said. There should be as much misinformation in there as information." I began to wonder whether he might be using this strategy with me, too. An inveterate storyteller like Irving probably does so instinctively. That's his job: rendering the contradictory complexities of life into a satisfying narrative. No one ever said novelists have to provide definitive answers, they merely have to frame good questions.
IRVING COULD EASILY HAVE RIDDEN the wave of his Garp-bred fame to genuine tabloid stardom. He admitted that, in a modest way, he did sow a few oats after his divorce. But generally, Irving hewed to the same work-and-gym regime he always had, turning out two long novels, Cider House and Owen Meany, in six years. "When you live in a place like New York, you inevitably go to a few rat-kick events where you wear a black tie to disguise the foolishness of the gathering and somebody with a camera catches a picture of you with an olive up your nose," he said. 'That makes you seem like you are 'on the scene,' but in fact you might not have been anywhere at all since the last occasion like that you attended."
Since returning to Vermont, Irving's social life largely amounts to the sometimes extended visits of his children and friends and periodic dinner parties. "John is a gracious host who happens to be a very funny storyteller, as you might imagine," said Craig Nova, who lives nearby.
David Warren clearly remembers Irving telling a tale about sharing a cab somewhere with Arnold Schwarzenegger. Their cabby disobeyed a request, and after the ride Schwarzenegger rocked the taxi to the point where he actually tipped it on its side. Irving, however, disclaims ever having even met Schwarzenegger. That doesn't surprise Warren. 'The essential truth of a John Irving story doesn't have much to do with whether it actually happened," Warren said. "It's how much you enjoyed hearing him tell it."
As for his public life, Irving has scaled back. He does book tours and hosts annual fund-raising events for the charity he and Janet feel closest to, Planned Parenthood of Northern New England. But he no longer campaigns for political candidates or other causes as he did in more activist
days. "1 don't like religious proselytizers and I don't like political proselytizers, and my own fairly recent memories of myself in a political proselytizing mode are not particularly likable to me now," he said.
Maybe not, but push one of Irving's hot buttons, like the "pro-life" movement, and he'll still let fly a little demagoguery. "You can't talk about there being any kind of evolution in a group as brain dead as that one," he said. 'These are knee-jerk religious zealots deeply concerned about the life of a fetus and contributing absolutely nothing to the life of those children who have been born." Irving resists the suggestion that the pro-life stalker who recently murdered an abortion doctor in Florida is like a character from one of his novels. 'He isn't smart enough or developed enough to be a character in one of my novels," Irving sniffed. He does suggest, however, that right-to-lifers are becoming a bit more hysterical" now that a prochoice president is in office. "The degree to which these groups have been encouraged to exercise their beliefs at other people's expense is, in my view, completely the fault of Ronald Reagan and George Bush and the Republican kowtowing to the religious right wing."
Shortly after the publication of The Cider House Rules, Irving appeared on a TV talk show. "Me interviewer asked if I wasn't afraid of getting hate mail from the right-to-lifers, and I said I wasn't because I had written a dense, complicated, literary novel, which was only partly about abortion, and that these people can't read difficult things, they can't think difficult thoughts." After his appearance, Irving said he received more than 100 letters from agitated pro-lifers. He directed his publisher to send a copy of Cider House to each of them, with a note to write Irving with their response after reading it. "I didn't hear from fucking one of them," he said. "End of point."
One of the few times Irving surfaced in the public eye during the writing of A Son of the Circus was when he wrote an essay in 1992 called "Pornography and the New Puritans" for the New York Times Book Review. In it, he attacked an ultimately unsuccessful piece of congressional legislation (the blueprint of which was drafted by radical feminist writer Andrea Dworkin and University of Michigan law professor Catharine A. MacKinnon) that would have established the legal ground for sex-crime victims to sue pornographers. The heart of his argument was that the bill would give rapists and other abusers a way of escaping accountability: They could blame the publishers of the dirty magazines they had read. 'At the risk of sounding old-fashioned, I'm still pretty sure that rape and child molestation predate erotic books," he wrote.
Dworkin wrote a heartfelt counterattack on Irving in the letters column of the Review. But Irving would have none of it. "Whether one is listening to the hysteria of Andrea Dworkin or her equally fascistic counterpart, though with good clothes and better language, Catharine MacKinnon, these people are fascists," he told me.
Another public contretemps followed the appearance in Esquire last year of a profile by Philip Weiss of Irving's friend Salman Rushdie, the celebrated target of an Islamic death threat. In a published, radioactive letter to the editor, Irving called the article "inane ... reek[ing] of tabloidism [and]... cheap-shot iconoclasm." He also telephoned then-editor Terry McDonell to ream him out personally for publishing the profile. Irving is dogged about loyalty, too - Circus is dedicated "For Salman."
IRVING TRACES MANY OF HIS liberal opinions, particularly those that might be called feminist, to 'the simple sense of fair play" he developed through sports. Most of the guys who took sports seriously when I grew up shared that very basic understanding of fair play," he said. "In collegiate wrestling, for example, there is a very interesting rule: He who lifts his opponent from the mat is responsible for his safe return.' I grew up with that rule and had a lot of respect for it. When you're totally off the mat, you're helpless." When coaching his sons, however, Irving found that many wrestling squads coached by younger men disregard the rule. He despairs that sportsmanship is on the wane. Despite his manly-man credentials and his history of writing on the war between the sexes, Irving refuses to be drawn into any abstract discussion of Manhood in the 1990s. If you want to define masculinity in our times, you have to look at TV commercials," he said. "See whether men are supposed to have their shirts open down to their navel or button the top button and leave the rest of the shirt untouched - that's kind of cute. Full beards are not cool, I gather, but being clean-shaven isn't too cool, either, so you have to find a way to go around three days unshaven. I don't know what it all means! It's all a question of fashion, of advertising and images."
Irving seemed fatigued when pushed on the subject, and stayed fatigued until the conversation turned to O.J. Simpson. Here was something he could kvetch about, because he had read an interview with Oliver Stone in which the film director, in reference to the Simpson case, said that "the line between thinking murder and doing murder isn't that major."
Irving once could have killed a man, he said. It happened long ago in the parking lot of a late-night pizza place. A robber stabbed him in the leg, and Irving felt he would have been totally justified in taking the guy down and banging his head on the pavement until it cracked. "But I didn't kill him and there's a big difference, you see what I mean?
Stone's remark is positively biblical in its stupidity - that old bit about coveting thy neighbor's wife being the same as screwing her," Irving said. "Well, anyone who's ever had a hard-on knows there's a difference. It's an utterly irresponsible thing to say, which seems to me to be consistent with the superficiality of his films."
Though this part of our talk was on the phone, in my mind's eye I could see Irving leaning back in his swivel chair, shaking his head and twitching his legs. Like regular guys everywhere, Irving just loves to shoot off his mouth. And luckily for his friends and readers, he does so a lot more entertainingly than most.
EARLY REVIEWS OF A Son of the Circus have been mixed. "Generally a tedious affair: rambling; lacking suspense devoid of energetic or lyric prose," panned the normally effusive Publishers Weekly. But the New York Times Book Review cited the 'torrent of vigorously dramatized incidents" and called it 'his most entertaining novel since Garp."
Irving is acutely aware of his critics, but claims to get upset only at those who use reviews as a platform for airing their "complaints and crabby aesthetics." In any event, he is already at work on his next novel, A Widow for One Year, whose central character is a female novelist who once witnessed the murder of a prostitute and years later becomes involved in its aftermath. Irving hinted at one point that his future novels might not be as long as his earlier ones. "It gets harder as you get older simply to keep all the strands of a long novel in mind," he said. "It takes a lot of energy."
To generate that energy, Irving will continue to head for the gym. '1 started working out seriously when I was 14 and I wrestled competitively until I was 34," he said. 'That's a long time to be with a habit, and it's a good habit, so I continue."
As Godwin might say, Irving is into the "what-ness" of wrestling now. He no longer straps on his wrestling boots every afternoon and practices his moves against the old stitched-leather dummy because he has anything to prove as an athlete. He does it because he always has, because it brings him satisfaction and because it makes his life complete.
The same might be said about why Irving writes.
JOHN PAUL NEWPORT wrote about Joe Montana in the September issue.