John Irving's vivid ninth novel tells a tale worthy of Garp
May 4, 1998
By Paul Gray
Photo Editor: Michele Stephenson

TWENTY YEARS LATER: The author's skills remain the same, although the culture may take less notice

It has been 20 years since John Irving's fourth novel, The World Acccording to Garp, made its author famous. Not only did the book attract a massive readership, but it also inspired a cult following and such extra‑literary phenomena as Garp T shirts and fan clubs. Irving's ninth novel, A Widow for One Year (Random House; 537 pages; $27.95), is unlikely to generate a similar hullabaloo. That is not because Irving's storytelling skills have waned; his new novel is in many respects his best since Garp. But over the past two decades, serious fiction has been elbowed ever further toward the fringes of popular culture. The adulation that once greeted Garp now goes to sitcoms and celebrities, a development that the hero‑author in the novel foresaw and deplored.

One of the most appealing attributes of A Widow for One Year is its refusal to pay any attention to the electronic clamor of American life. There is scarcely a TV set to be found in the entire novel. Recorded music appears fleetingly as an intrusive annoyance. Irving's people crave old-fashioned peace and quiet, and to a large extent they get it. All the book's major characters are or become writers‑-during the course of a long story that spans nearly four decades. The novel is made up of both what they experience and what they tell.

This device sounds more artificial and self-conscious than it appears on Irving's pages. His characters become writers because all of them have been wounded in one way or another by an event so painful it can be thought of only in fictional form.

Eddie O'Hare, 16, finds himself working during the summer of 1958 as an assistant to Ted Cole, a well-known writer and illustrator of children's books. Also at the Cole house on Long Island, N.Y., are Ted's beautiful wife Marion and daughter Ruth, 4. And there are hundreds of framed photographs on the walls depicting the Cole sons Thomas and Timothy. They were 17 and 15 when they were killed, five years earlier, in a car crash. Their parents, in the backseat, survived unhurt but devastated.

Eddie, in other words, has stumbled into a domestic nightmare. Ted, who treats his pain with alcohol and philandering, has grown weary of his wife's grief; he figures, correctly, that Marion will not be able to resist Eddie, who is so close in age to the dead sons. For her part, Marion plans to run away from both her unfaithful husband and the daughter she is afraid to love lest she lose her too. Marion uses Eddie, who has fallen into bed and love with her, to help her get away. She takes almost all the photographs of her sons with her, leaving her daughter without a mother and the walls with nothing but picture hooks to remind Ruth of the brothers she never knew.

Irving explains, "The picture hooks were part of the reason she became a writer‑-for years after her mother left, Ruth would try to remember which of the photographs had hung from which of the hooks. And, failing to recall the actual pictures of her perished brothers to her satisfaction, Ruth began to invent all the captured moments in their short lives, which she had missed." Eddie's love for the vanished Marion turns him into a writer as well; his five novels will all deal poignantly with young men and older women. And Ruth and Eddie come to suspect that Marion, wherever she has gone, is writing and publishing novels under a pseudonym.

After relating the events of that momentous summer, Irving jumps forward to periods of time in 1990 and 1995, following Ruth and Eddie and Ted and assorted friends and lovers as they grow older. But nearly everything that happens in A Widow for One Year is foreshadowed or present in embryonic form in the novel's long opening section. Irving's use of suspense is peculiar and intriguing. The question he poses is seldom what will happen next; for example, he spills the beans quickly that Marion will reappear in the story 37 years after it begins. But this information is strictly between author and reader; the characters, realistically enough, are left in the dark. As Ruth begins imagining her fourth novel, about an unhappy love affair, she hits on a rule that clearly guides her creator: "The reader should anticipate the boyfriend's awfulness, but the woman writer doesn't see it coming." Reading A Widow for One Year is largely a matter of watching characters walk or trip into unsuspected inevitabilities.

This method of telling a story has its sometimes irritating limitations. Irving spends a lot of time describing what his characters do not know; for example, "[Ruth] had no idea that she was not through with him." And the author sometimes overexplains: "Oh, well, Eddie thought as he got off the bus--maybe it was almost Ninety‑second Street. (It was Eighty‑first.)" But these are the lapses of a generous narrator intent on giving his readers not just incidents but a way of making sense of them. "The grief over lost children never dies," Irving writes near the end. His novel shows how and why that statement is true.