Bestselling novelist John Irving is back on top with A Widow for One Year, his darkest book since Garp
By BENJAMIN SVETKEY
Photographs by MARK ELLEN MARK
Former competitive wrestler Irving works out in his impressively outfitted home gym
Be careful driving home," the novelist warns. I The deer come out of nowhere. Hit one and
it'll slide up your hood and straight through your windshield. Kill you instantly." It's been 20 years since The World According to Garp, and the world according to John Irving is still one big accident waiting to happen. Even in the rural calm of Vermont, where he built the secluded hilltop home he shares with second wife Janet Turnbull and their 6 year old son, Everett, the notorious undertoad is alive and hopping.
In fact, tragedy and calamity as much a part of Irving's oeuvre as neurotic bears, sensitive wrestlers and transsexual football players loom larger than ever in his critically lauded new novel. A Widow for One Year is a bittersweet tale of unhappy families, luckless love lives and sudden, unspeakable disastersincluding a plot turning car crash even more chilling than Garp's. "Comparisons are going to be inevitable," says Irving, 56. "This book is more like The World According to Garp than any other I've written. Only it's a lot darker."
Garp was the 1978 bestseller that turned Trymg then a full time university wrestling coach who was married to photographer Shyla Leary and had three little known novels on his résumé into a publishing heavyweight. That quirky, poignant parable, full of random violence, feminist fanatics and wrenching parental paranoia, sold more than 10 million copies, inspiring a worldwide network of Garp fan clubs, a movie and even a brief fashion craze (Irving still has his I BELIEVE IN GARP T-shirt). It also made him rich enough to build his dream house an enormous, eccentric, cedar shingled structure complete with its own rubber padded wrestling room and transformed the writer into a literary sex symbol.
"No. Wrong. Not true," Irving bristles at the myth of his sexpot mystique. "Fame is just someone else's perception of you. I mean, look where I live. Nobody here knows who the f**k I am. If I go to a restaurant in New York, maybe I'll see somebody looking at me. But half the time they think I'm an old ballplayer. They're like, 'Is that Bucky Dent?'
"I work eight or nine hours a day, seven days a week," he says. "I travel as little as possible. I have a couple of grown children out west [CoIm, 33, an actor, and Brendan, 28, an emergency worker and ski patroller]. And my wife has a business in Toronto, so we go there sometimes. But that's it. That's what I do. I don't have a closet full of tuxedos."
Canadian Turnbull, 44, who is Irving's literary agent as well as his wife of 11 years, backs up his story. "The unique thing about John is that every day is exactly the same," she says. "You can count on it. He gets up, has breakfast, goes into his office until 5 o'clock, works out in his gym, eats dinner, goes back to his office. His day is very regular. Fortunately, my life is crazy, so it works out nicely."
Those monotonous, marathon work weeks aren't entirely devoted to churning out hit novels (four since Garp, including The Hotel New Hamp Irving, who dismisses. scriptwriting as "carpentry," has also had some unhappy encounters with the screen trade in attempting to adapt his 1985 bestseller, The Cider House Rules, which has been in the works for 12 years. And Disney is doing a film of A Prayer for Owen Meany (called Simon Birch), but it veers so far from the 1989 novel that Irving has removed his name from it. "I don't even like films," he says. "I've seen two movies in theatres in the last 10 years Schindler's List and The English Patient and only because both books were written by friends. It's just not part of my thing."
A Widow for One Year, which took him four years to write, is, however, Irving's thing all over. Like Garp, it's a novel about a novelist: Ruth Cole, a successful young author with a long lost mum, a horny dad and a knack for picking really rotten boyfriends. Also like Garp, it's a hefty, 500 plus production packed with weird coincidences, strange bedfellows, stories within stories and shocking twists of fate. But it's subtler and less gimmicky a single bear or wrestler in sight and is earning Irving some of the best reviews of his career. "This book is different from Garp in a lot of ways,"he says. "The fears are similar you never get over your fears for your children. But 20 years down the road, your fears change. You have a different perspective on the horror."
But not that different. "Listen," he says, standing in his winding dirt driveway at the end of the interview, just before issuing his parting deer throughthe windshield warning, "go slow down the hill. My wife and kid are due any minute. Don't hit them."