After 15 novels, John Irving has a powerful literary legacy

By Jennifer Levin

Aboy is born in New England. His paternity is a mystery, his mother a local scandal. He grows up on the grounds of a prep school and takes up wrestling. He’s preternaturally drawn to people he shouldn’t desire, and at some point a bear shows up.

If this sounds familiar, you’ve probably read at least one novel by John Irving, one of the most well-known American writers of the last 50 years. His breakthrough hit, The World According to Garp (1978), and popular follow-up, The Hotel New Hampshire (1981), were made into movies starring the biggest actors of the day. The Cider House Rules (1985) is an overtly political saga about class, race, and abortion that Irving adapted into an Academy Award–winning screenplay in 1999. His latest novel, The Last Chairlift (2022), follows an Oscar-winning screenwriter looking into the mystery of his conception with a parallel narrative that explores his mother’s unconventional marriage.

Irving has been writing about what he calls “sexual outlaws” for half a century in long novels that encompass lifetimes. His characters include trans, asexual, and bisexual people and others whose sexuality, physicality, or parentage places them outside mainstream society. In his novels, he pays close attention to the subtle gradations of classism, sexism, and homophobia. But absolutely nothing else about his books can be described as subtle.

Irving’s characters are known for making rash decisions, often of a sexual nature, that affect the rest of their lives. His plots hinge on absurdist circumstances but are nevertheless rooted in the everyday. They’re anchored in history as well as Irving’s own boyhood. And he’s a master storyteller: he knows how to make you weep and a page later howl with laughter.

When he talks, he sounds exactly like the narrators in his novels. His sentences are long and his anecdotes are involved. He reflects on the past to give insight into the present. Asked about the mix of drama and comedy in his novels, he recalls that when he was in high school, a theater director informed him he was a ham — good at playing the villain or the fool but nothing in between. Irving, who had asked for the feedback, found it spot on.

“I was old enough to recognize that I probably had it in me to be an overwriter, too,” he says. “Certainly I was more inclined to overdo than I was toward anything mildly resembling minimalism.”

Irving reads at the Santa Fe International Literary Festival, followed by a conversation with Douglas Preston. The Santa Fe resident and author of The Lost City of the Monkey God (2017) read Garp when he was 18.

“I was absolutely carried away, and I’ve been a fan ever since,” Preston says. “What I love about Irving’s novels is that he dares to create characters who engage with giant moral complexities, who embrace the full lushness of human eccentricity, in stories that sweep across time and space. To me, he’s an American Tolstoy or Dickens, who has kept alive the ambition and power of the 19th-century novel.”

Hallmarks of a 19th-century novel include intricate, almost contrived plotting, a focus on humanity and equality, and a mix of realism and humor. If this sounds just like an Irving novel, it’s because he considers the 19th-century novel the model of the form. “These were the novels that meant the most to me as a teenager, [so] I felt doomed to obscurity. It’s a strange feeling to be addicted to something that is perceived as old-fashioned even by your parents’ generation.

As for always writing about himself, he says, “I often quite deliberately begin with things that are autobiographical to me, but only at the beginning. As time goes on, then the rules change. Nothing in my novels turns out the way things have turned out for me.”

But if the so-called iconic writers of American literature when I was growing up had been my models — Hemingway, Faulkner, Fitzgerald — I wouldn’t have become a novelist. They didn’t interest me.”

Despite what some may call an old-fashioned storytelling style, Irving’s content pushes modern boundaries. Garp features a transgender former pro football player and a group of women who cut out their tongues to protest sexual violence. Rape and suicide are major plot points in The Hotel New Hampshire, in which a main character lives in a bear suit. In the novel many consider Irving’s true classic, A Prayer for Owen Meany (1989), a Catholic priest doesn’t believe in God and the title character spends his life practicing for his heroic death. Irving’s novels are usually set in New England, but Avenue of Mysteries (2015) takes place in part in Mexico. With its focus on the Spanish language, Catholicism, and the tension between Indigenous and Spanish culture, it might just be his most Santa Fe–style novel. In it, a statue of the Virgin Mary falls on a sex worker and kills her, making orphans out of her Our Lady of Guadalupe– worshipping children.

Irving never shies away from uncomfortable sexual urges or behaviors, including incest and other forms of sexual abuse. He’s known for working out sexual traumas again and again in his books. In media interviews for Until I Find You (2005), Irving revealed that he’d been grappling with childhood sexual abuse perpetrated by a woman. Because a woman molests the book’s protagonist, Jack, journalists and readers assumed the two situations were the same. But Irving never meant to give that impression. What happened to Jack came from Irving’s imagination. In real life, he was older than Jack and he loved and trusted the woman. “I never felt unsafe at the time. In retrospect I wonder what she was thinking. It wasn’t right. If it had been one of my own children, I would’ve been appalled,” he says.

Because his novels almost always start in the familiar territory of his New England childhood, readers and critics often assume him to be an autobiographical writer. His detractors accuse him of shamelessly recycling his plots and characters. And many readers believe he’s endlessly working out his personal demons. None of these perceptions is entirely accurate.

If writing this way were good therapy, he says, he would’ve been done with it after the first or second novel. As for always writing about himself, he says, “I often quite deliberately begin with things that are autobiographical to me, but only at the beginning. As time goes on, then the rules change. Nothing in my novels turns out the way things have turned out for me.” In other words, if reading the beginning of one of his novels feels like you’re in a kaleidoscope of all Irving novels at once, that’s by design. He deliberately revisits themes and characters the same way a painter might paint variations of the same object.

“Think of how many royal families and their royal dysfunction Shakespeare revisited again and again. Or Dickens’ repeated interest in the formative years of childhood and early adolescence. I didn’t . . . make that up. I got it from him.”

Irving has said publicly that The Last Chairlift is his last long novel. But in our conversation, he revealed that he’s working on a new book. “I’m now eight chapters into it,” he says. “I needed an orphan with a particular history in a particular time. So I’ve gone back to St. Cloud’s and Dr. Larch at a slightly earlier time than in The Cider House Rules. The variation-on-a-theme thing is compelling to me, especially in those of my novels I would call of the family saga kind. Over the passage of time, these fictional characters have become as familiar to me as autobiographical models. Even when Homer Wells [another character from The Cider House Rules] returns to the orphanage, it’s like he’s returning to family.” Irving’s novels offer that family — with all its predictability and surprises — to readers, who are welcomed home again and again.

Jennifer Levin is a freelance communications professional and an arts and culture writer in Santa Fe.






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