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John (Winslow) Irving Biography

Nationality: American. Born: Exeter, New Hampshire, 1942. Education: Phillips Exeter Academy, Exeter, graduated 1962; University of Pittsburgh 1961-62; University of Vienna, 1963-64; University of New Hampshire, Durham, B.A. (cum laude), 1965; University of Iowa, Iowa City, M.F.A. 1967. Career: Taught at Windham College, Putney, Vermont, 1967-69; lived in Vienna, 1969-71; writer-in-residence, University of Iowa, 1972-75; assistant professor of English, Mount Holyoke College, South Hadley, Massachusetts, 1975-78. Awards: Rockefeller grant, 1972; National Endowment for the Arts grant, 1974; Guggenheim grant, 1976; American Book Award, for paperback, 1980; Academy Award, Best Adapted Screenplay (Cider House Rules), 2000. Agent: Sterling Lord Literistic, 1 Madison Avenue, New York, New York 10010.



Setting Free the Bears. New York, Random House, 1969; London, Corgi, 1979.

The Water-Method Man. New York, Random House, 1972; London, Corgi, 1980.

The 158-Pound Marriage. New York, Random House, 1974; London, Corgi, 1980.

The World According to Garp. New York, Dutton, and London, Gollancz, 1978.

The Hotel New Hampshire. New York, Dutton, and London, Cape, 1981.

The Cider House Rules. New York, Morrow, and London, Cape, 1985.

A Prayer for Owen Meany. New York, Morrow, and London, Bloomsbury, 1989.

A Son of the Circus. New York, Random House, and London, Bloomsbury, 1994.

John Irving: Three Complete Novels (contains Setting Free the Bears ;The Water-Method Man ; and The 158-Pound Marriage). New York, Wings Books, 1995.

A Widow for One Year. New York, Random House, 1998.

Short Stories

Trying to Save Piggy Snead. London, Bloomsbury, 1993.

Uncollected Short Stories

"A Winter Branch," in Redbook (New York), November 1965.

"Weary Kingdom," in Boston Review, Spring-Summer 1968.

"Almost in Iowa," in The Secret Life of Our Times, edited by GordonLish. New York, Doubleday, 1973.

"Lost in New York," in Esquire (New York), March 1973.

"Brennbar's Rant," in Playboy (Chicago), December 1974.

"Students: These Are Your Teachers!," in Esquire (New York), September 1975.

"Vigilance," in Ploughshares (Cambridge, Massachusetts), no. 4, 1977.

"Dog in the Alley, Child in the Sky," in Esquire (New York), June1977.

"Interior Space," in Fiction (New York), no. 6, 1980.



The Cider House Rules: A Screenplay. New York, Hyperion, 1999.


My Movie Business: A Memoir. New York, Random House, 1999.


Film Adaptations:

The World According to Garp, 1982; The Hotel New Hampshire, 1984; Simon Birch, based on the work A Prayer for Owen Meany, 1998; The Cider House Rules, 1999.

Manuscript Collections:

Phillips Exeter Academy, Exeter, New Hampshire.

Critical Studies:

Introduction by Terrence DuPres to 3 by Irving (omnibus), New York, Random House, 1980; Fowles, Irving, Barthes: Canonical Variations on an Apocryphal Theme by Randolph Runyon, Columbus, Ohio State University Press, 1982; John Irving by Gabriel Miller, New York, Ungar, 1982; Understanding John Irving by Edward C. Reilly, Columbia, South Carolina, University of South Carolina Press, 1991.

Theatrical Activities:

Actor: FilmThe World According to Garp, 1982.

* * *

The publication of The World According to Garp was an important event in contemporary American literature. For John Irving himself, of course, the novel's reception must have been extremely gratifying: the book neatly divided his career forever into the pre-and post-Garp periods. Initially a little-known academic novelist whose first three books—Setting Free the Bears, The Water-Method Man, and The 158-Pound Marriage—rapidly sought the remainder lists, he suddenly found himself inundated by critical superlatives and, no doubt, positively drenched in money. He achieved that rare combination of literary acclaim and wide readership that every writer dreams of. The success of Garp, following the previous achievement of E.L. Doctorow's Ragtime, indicated that after many years of stifling academicism, fiction may have finally graduated from college and ventured out into the arena of ordinary life. Because many professors seem to believe that literature was written exclusively to be studied in their courses and because far too many writers receive their training in those courses, a great deal of American writing has been marked by a sterile obsession with technique for its own sake, a conscious avoidance of traditional subjects, a fatal attraction to critical theory, and a perverse desire to appeal only to a coterie of initiates.

Irving's works in general, and Garp most spectacularly, signal the return of fiction to its proper and honorable concerns—a close engagement with the stuff of real life, a profound compassion for humanity, and—inextricably and possibly even causally connected to these qualities—great dedication to the narrative process, to storytelling itself. Irving cares deeply for his characters and their stories and makes his readers care for them as well; in doing so he places his work in the great lineage of the novel. Only a bold and innovative writer could venture so daringly backward into the literary past. His three most significant books at this point in his career—The World According to Garp, The Cider House Rules, and A Prayer for Owen Meany—indicate that this late twentieth-century American novelist also participates in the traditions of the nineteenth-century English novel. Long, leisurely narratives, densely populated with eccentrics, attentive to the whole lives of virtually all the characters, replete with coincidence and foreshadowing, full of allusions to specific writers and works, his novels combine a Dickensian richness of character and emotion with a Hardyesque sense of gloom and doom.

In addition to his refreshingly old-fashioned qualities, Irving also demonstrates his appropriateness to his own time and place. His novels are in many ways as contemporary as those of any of his peers. In addition to a growing sense of topicality, most fully realized in A Prayer for Owen Meany, they display all the familiar landmarks of the American literary countryside: violence, grotesquerie, a certain craziness, a racy, energetic style, and a powerful interest in the fiction-making process. They differ from one another in manner, matter, and merit—The 158-Pound Marriage seems his weakest performance—but they also share certain peculiarly Irvingesque subjects that create their special zany charm. Until The Cider House Rules, his books all dealt with such matters as academia, art, children, marital triangles and quadrangles, wrestlers, writers, sexual mutilation, Vienna, and bears. Bears creep through his first book and also show up in the long story "The Pension Grillparzer," that appears in The World According to Garp as well as The Hotel New Hampshire.

The pre-Garp Irving is lively, comic, whimsical, a writer whose works display immense confidence, a kind of assured easiness rare in a young beginner, far beyond the usual condescending cliches about promise. Setting Free the Bears is a revitalized American picaresque improbably set in Austria; the goal of its protagonist's lunatic quest is suggested in its title and works out to be as improbable as its location. The Water-Method Man deals with the sexual escapades, personal failures, and professional problems of a more or less lovable rogue wonderfully named Bogus Trumper; it explores, with rich glee, some fascinating notions about the creation of art from the chaos of Trumper's life, through the medium of avant-garde filmmaking and Trumper's absurd doctoral dissertation.

Whatever the value of his earlier work, however, in retrospect it seems a preliminary for The World According to Garp, which entirely altered Irving's career. The novel is written with enormous energy and strength, clearly the work of writer in full command of his material and his method. Although its style presents no particular problems and its plot moves in a leisurely, straightforward manner, the novel seems radically experimental for its complicated narrative progress. Its ostensibly simple story of the life of T.S. Garp from conception to death is interrupted by a number of other fictions from "The Pension Grillparzer" to a horribly violent account of rape, murder, and despair, Garp's own novel, The World According to Bensenhaver; the book also includes bits from Garp's mother's autobiography, A Sexual Suspect, other short stories, and parts of the biography of Garp that will only be written after his life and the book are over. In an action that must have called for some courage, Irving even includes an epilogue, detailing the lives of his characters after the main events of his major fiction have concluded: once again, in reverting to the methods of the past the author seems daringly innovative.

The actual subjects and events of Garp, just as unusual as its narrative archaism, come to dominate all of Irving's works. Although the novel itself was almost universally regarded as comic and, in Irving's words, "life affirming," it is an immensely sad and troubling book, haunted by violence, savagery, fear, horror, and despair. From beginning to end a bleeding wound gapes across the book: Garp's mother slashes a soldier in a theater; his father dies of a terrible war wound; his wife bites her lover's penis off in the same automobile accident that kills one of Garp's sons and half-blinds the other; and Garp's own novel, The World According to Bensenhaver, employs one of the most vivid rape scenes in all of literature. The relationship between sexuality and mutilation is emphasized through virtually every character—from Roberta Muldoon, the transsexual former football player to the man-hating feminists who cut out their own tongues to commemorate the maiming of a rape victim; Garp himself is assassinated by a cult member, the sister of the girl who was responsible for his sexual initiation.

Irving's fascination with sex-related violence and sexual mutilation winds disturbingly through most of his works, from the gang rapes of The Cider House Rules through the hijras—transvestite eunuchs—of India and the transsexual serial murderer Rahul in A Son of the Circus. Along with the bizarre and horrific narratives and the close attention to the character and life of the artist, the theme of sexual mutilation suggests something about the creative act itself. Throughout his works, art is generated out of sex, fear, pain, blood, and guilt; experiencing all these, Irving's artists create their fictions, which also make up a large part of the books about them, sometimes even as in A Son of the Circus, attempting to "write" life as if it were their own narrative. Sex, art, life, and the interpretation of both provide his rich and often puzzling structures, sometimes leading away from their initially simple, comic narrative lines into a region of horror, grotesquerie, insanity, and myth.

The post-Garp Irving, no longer the obscure academic writer, was rapidly transformed into the celebrity author, attentive to sales, publicity, and movie rights. He soon began to appear on the television talk shows, demonstrating his recipe for breaded veal cutlet; dressed in wrestler's togs and flexing his wrestler's muscles, he brooded handsomely in full color for readers of slick magazines. His good looks, his popularity, and his willingness to publicize his books and films earned him a more than literary fame and no doubt a more than literary fortune—his post-Garp works are copyrighted by something called Garp Enterprises Ltd. The Hotel New Hampshire and The Cider House Rules demonstrate the pernicious influence of success. The former continues some of the subjects of its predecessor, boiling over with violence and whimsy—a gang rape, a plane crash, suicide, terrorism, a lesbian in a bear suit, and a flatulent dog named Sorrow. Although the obsessions remain intact, they seem mechanical and perfunctory in style and substance; the laborious drollery and the easy cynicism, along with the specious profundities of the repeated catch phrases and verbal tags, read like warmed-over Vonnegut.

The Cider House Rules, on the other hand, shows that the author can move away from a possibly fatal self-imitation in new directions. Irving discovers for the first time the depths and possibilities of his natural penchant for Dickensian storytelling by inventing a truly Irvingesque place, an orphanage where abortions are performed. Though heavily dependent on the kind of research that hinders so many academic authors, The Cider House Rules recaptures some of the original Garpian compassion. The quirkiness of style and the fascination with genital wounds and sexual pain remain, but they are mixed with less labored touches of lightness and a good deal of love.

The Dickens and the Hardy influences flourish in A Prayer for Owen Meany, his finest work after Garp, which shows the author once again in full command of his considerable gifts and more fully aware of the tradition in which he works. Returning to the autobiographical mode that fuels the energy of Garp, Irving once again reports terrible events in a straightforward, even comic style, invents some remarkable people—especially the title character—and explores some of his favorite subjects. In addition, he more explicitly confronts his repeated theme of problematic paternity and this time attempts to provide reason and causality for what he had previously presented as the horrible mischancing of coincidence and fate; in A Prayer for Owen Meany Irving has found religion, specifically Christianity. He employs a nicely orchestrated set of typically unusual symbols and a variety of people and events to express the religious dimension, which encompasses the primitive and mythic as well as the various Protestant orthodoxies. As a result the book suggests a more energetic but less lapidary and learned John Updike.

The novel, along with the long, rather disordered exploration of India in A Son of the Circus, demonstrates that Irving has challenged himself in new ways: instead of settling for the sort of repetition that pleases far too many readers, he has chosen to break new ground. By contrast, A Widow for One Year marked a return to somewhat familiar territory, constituting a sort of female Garp saga with novelist Ruth Cole as its protagonist.

In a relatively brief time and at a relatively young age, John Irving has become a major contemporary novelist. His considerable body of work displays originality, development, and richness of subject and theme. His startling mixture of humor and sorrow, accessibility and complexity, clarity and confusion, of strong narrative with humane vision, of horrified despair with life-affirming comedy seems perfectly suited to end-of-century culture and literature. The chord he struck in a large and varied public with Garp continues to resonate; his works still appeal to a readership that encompasses many levels of literacy, an indication of their timeliness and power.

—George Grella

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