Wednesday, June 11, 2008

John Irving

Though my old friend Don Lesser raved about his first novel, "Setting Free The Bears," it took another pal, Steve Rubin, to turn me on to the writing of John Irving.

I started with "Garp," and worked my way backward and forward, then stumbled over "Son of a Circus" and didn't finish it. But when "A Widow For One Year" came out, Chauncey Mabe at the Sun-Sentinel gave me an uncorrected manuscript and requested a review.
Irving is working on his next book, Last Night In Twisted River, scheduled to be published in 2009.

published Sunday, May 3, 1998
A WIDOW FOR ONE YEAR. John Irving. Random House. 608 pages.
The novels of John Irving have been popular successes and for the most part critical triumphs, despite their old-fashioned demands on readers' intelligence and literacy. Irving is rare among contemporary writers for declaring his intention of writing long books with multiple characters and story lines in the unfashionable tradition of Charles Dickens. He makes no concessions to the shortened attention spans of a public conditioned by television and movies.

A Widow for One Year marks both a departure from and a return to form (if not substance) for an author celebrating the 20th anniversary of The World According to Garp, his most celebrated novel. His last, A Son of the Circus (1995), sold moderately well and was kindly reviewed, but anecdotal evidence suggests it was not a hit with Irving's audience and does not seem to have won him many new fans.

Last year's collection of short stories, criticism and miscellanea, Saving Piggy Sneed, was weighted down by an interminably boring paean to collegiate wrestling, a fatal imbalance in so short an anthology.

The new novel exhibits Irving's expansive manner of spinning a tale that ranges through decades, hitting the major events in the lives of several characters. As always he foreshadows — if not telegraphs — many plot points, revealing perhaps too much information through chapter titles, as well as the title of the book. And he jumps around in time, as usual, which does create some extra interest: You may know what, but not quite how.

That kind of craft is hardly seamless, however, and Irving's trademark Single Horrific Violent Event, a feature of most of his works, occurs before the novel begins, though it is a critical defining element of the story.

When the story opens, Ruth Coe is 4 years old in 1958, born following the accidental death of her twin brothers, an event that catalyzes the disintegration of her parents' marriage. Her father, Ted Cole, is a serial adulterer and a successful author and illustrator of children's books. Marion, her mother, still numb from the death of her sons, is conducting an affair (arranged by Ted) with Eddie O'Hare, the father's 16-year-old assistant who resembles one of the dead boys. She is preparing to abandon husband, daughter and lover.

This affair is the defining element of Eddie's life. Later, as a moderately successful novelist, he recapitulates the older woman-younger man romantic motif endlessly, carrying a torch for Marion for the rest of his life.

Ruth becomes a writer, too, as are most of the characters, except for one who is her editor, and another, a reader who is a fan of all but one of the characters. So Irving writes about what he knows: writers, editors, readers — and as characters these are probably preferable to wrestlers.

After this set-up, the story moves 32 years forward, then ahead another five, to follow the fates of Ruth, Ted, Eddie and Marion.

While A Widow for One Year boasts the characteristic touchstones of Irving's best novels, it lacks the gravity and substance of Irving's better works. For example, in The World According to Garp, the inclusion of the title character's own writing works to marvelous effect. In this case, however, several passages composed of the writer-characters' "fiction'' bring the proceedings to a leaden halt.

Where A Widow for One Year most departs from the rest of Irving's oeuvre is in its characters, none of whom is very likable. They all have their reasons, of course, and loads of justifications for their motives, manners and actions, but any attraction this novel possesses is more a function of Irving's style rather than of any resonance arising from the characters and their situations. Irving has always featured complex, strong, even heroic women in his books, but Ruth Coe is the first female to take center stage as title character. Yet this is no cause for celebration, since she is set on a hapless and involuted path.
Furthermore, the choice of title is puzzling, since the marriage it refers to is not nearly as significant as other events in Ruth's life.

The tale's inevitable conclusion elicits some strong emotions, but its willful sentimentality and cheapness is unmatched in any Irving novel.

Ultimately, A Widow for One Year is bound to disappoint those who have experienced the author's better novels, while new readers may wonder what all the fuss was about. They would best be directed to nearly any of Irving's earlier works.

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