Tuesday, November 10, 2009

From Garp to Twisted River

I've been reading John Irving for just a tiny bit more than 30 years. I picked up "The World According to Garp" in paperback during the second semester of my college freshman year, and I was enraptured by it. I couldn't put it down and didn't want it to end. It was one of the most purely pleasurable reading experiences of my life.

Of course, I think I read it at exactly the right moment, at 19, in 1979. I hadn't read much mainstream literary fiction at that point. I did fancy myself as a writer, so I liked the stories-within-a-story and the debates about the differences between fiction and autobiography. I was thrilled to read a book by someone who shared my experience as a resident of New Hampshire, who wrote about Exeter, a town only a few miles from my own.

I re-read "Garp" five or six years ago, and it holds up pretty well, though its mid-Seventies attitudes about feminism seem a little off and more than slightly creepy. What still works perfectly, though, is the tour de force "Walt Catches Cold" chapter, in which Garp tries to deal with his two obstreperous sons while his wife attempts to break up with her weaselly lover. Everything in that chapter is perfectly calibrated, balancing humor and suspense and irony and foreboding. Its last lines are among the most heart-stopping I've ever read, and Mr. Irving will forever be cut a lot of slack on my part because of how masterful that chapter and its aftermath are.

Unfortunately, I've never quite found an Irving book I like as much as "Garp." Some are just awful. I couldn't get more than 3o pages into "Until I Find You," and does anybody love "The Fourth Hand"? Others seem overly self-important, especially "The Cider House Rules." But I hold "A Widow for One Year" in high esteem, and though I'm not ga-ga about it like some readers, I see the appeal of "A Prayer for Owen Meany."

When I heard about Irving's new novel, "Last Night in Twisted River," I lobbied to review it for The Chronicle. (Truthfully, there didn't seem to be much competition.) And I'm glad I did. It gave me everything I want in a John Irving novel, but without most of the elements that make his lesser novels so irritating. Read the review and, if you're a fan of "Garp," see if it doesn't sound like something you'd enjoy.

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