Commentary Magazine

Why John Irving Is So Popular

“Ambushing a Best-Seller” is the title Edmund Wilson gave to a 1945 review of a novel by Anya Seton, but clearly it is too late to ambush the novelist John Irving, who has already ridden into town, cleaned out the banks, and ridden out again unharmed. After publishing three novels, Irving rang the bestseller gong, and rang it with a sledgehammer, with his fourth, The World According to Garp, and then rang it yet again with his fifth and most recent novel, The Hotel New Hampshire.1 These books have not been bestsellers merely but thunderous bestsellers. Three-and-a-half million paper back copies sold of The World According to Garp, weeks and weeks, atop the bestseller lists for The Hotel New Hampshire, Garp soon to be a movie. . . .

Yet all this is matter best left to the accountants. What is more interesting, what distinguishes John Irving’s recent novels from the regular run of even thunderous bestsellers, is that they are not books meant for entertainment alone. They are written out of serious intentions, and by and large they are read in a serious way by their varied audience. My sense is that this audience is fairly youthful, Irving’s readers ranging preponderantly between their early forties and their early twenties, though not exclusively so.

John Irving’s admirers take his novels seriously, he most certainly takes them seriously, but how seriously ought serious people to take them? Fifty million Frenchmen can’t be wrong, they used to say before the establishment of the Vichy government; can five or six million American readers of John Irving? Of course they can, and over questions of serious art large audiences generally are wrong. Yet they need not necessarily be. Right or wrong, however, the wide readership for John Irving’s novels—mainly youthful, mainly middle class—is itself a phenomenon worth considering in its own right. But before considering the phenomenon of Irving’s commercial success, let us consider the products that made the success a phenomenon—the novels themselves

“Jubilant” is the word Mordecai Richler used to describe the quality of John Irving’s talent. “America’s most jubilant bestseller” reads the blurb atop the paperback edition of Garp. Jubilation, surely, is one of the effects Irving seeks as a novelist—a sense of joyousness, of exultation. Fittingly, he is a high-energy writer, who works in heavy brush-strokes, goes in for colorful effects, does not write the kind of careful novel in which, as Virginia Woolf once said of the novels of Jane Austen, “one slip means death.”

In the contemporary novel, jubilation also implies comedy, comedy of a somewhat manic kind, and Irving, from the very beginning of his career, has been a comedian. The character T. S. Garp says, “Why did people insist that if you were ‘comic’ you couldn’t also be ‘serious’?” I am not sure that many people do insist this, for it is fairly common knowledge that there is a comedy that is at bottom highly serious. More about the quality of John Irving’s comedy presently, but for now let it suffice to say that, as with the work of so many contemporary American novelists—Pynchon and Barthelme, Elkin and Roth, Coover and Barth—Irving’s is riddled, is fairly bristling, with comic scenes.

Sex, too, is central to the Irving novel. Fancy fornication in one form or another is never far off in any of John Irving’s novels, and it ranges from adolescent sex to lesbian love to couple-swapping to incest. Fellatio in a car, both moving and parked, is another Irving spécialité de la maison. Comedy and sex often combine, and the result is generally scenes that are frenzied, hysterical, madcap, shading into slapstick in which lust leads to an Irving hero being caught in flagrante delicto. The centrality of sex in these novels is curious, in that Irving often goes well out of his way to make plain his hatred of the sexual exploitation of women and his sympathy for the general tendency of their liberation from the old regime under which, presumably, women were treated as sexual objects. More than one of John Irving’s novels manages to be both liberationist and pornographic. But then sex is perhaps the only one of life’s activities where one can eat one’s cake and have it, too.

The physical side of life generally gets a great deal of play in the novels of John Irving. Sweat, secretions, smells, bumps, lumps, rumps—all come in for their share of descriptive prose. Although Irving is fecund in imagining incidents for his characters to run through, it is apparently a bit more difficult for him not to create a narrator or at least one principal character who is, as they say in the locker room, “in shape.” Wrestling, running, weight-lifting, physical conditioning of one strenuous sort or another is, in a way that is not quite made explicit, connected to spiritual conditioning. But then perhaps the joggers of our day do not need to have the connection made any more explicit.

One needs to be in a certain shape oneself to read a John Irving novel; rather a strong stomach, specifically, is required for the violence that is integral to his novels. Characters are set upon by bears and other wild animals; body parts drop off people with a more than fair regularity; bombings and rapes are provided; a character from Irving’s first novel, Setting Free the Bears, meets his death through suffocation in a pit of human excrement, and he, mind you, is a sympathetic character. In a notorious scene in Garp, a car crash results in the loss of the following human inventory: one child, the eye of another, and one penis. But this is lyrical stuff compared with another scene in the same novel in which (in the course of a story within the larger story) a man is disemboweled while committing a rape. John Irving is not unaware of the heavy dosage of violence in his novels, and in his latest, The Hotel New Hampshire, his narrator remarks of the book’s ending, “I know it’s not nearly violent enough to please some of the friends and foes from our past. . . .”



It was only with the fourth of his novels, The World According to Garp, that John Irving began to talk thus to his readers, to refer to his own works within his works. Roughly three-quarters of the way through Garp, for example, Garp, the narrator, tells us that he is planning to write a novel called My Father’s Illusions, which turns out to be not the title but one of the principal themes of Irving’s next novel. The Hotel New Hampshire. In Garp, too, the narrator is supposed to have written an earlier novel entitled The Second Wind of the Cuckold. Irving never wrote such a novel, though the phrase—“If cuckolds catch a second wind, I am eagerly waiting for mine”—is found embedded in the last line of Irving’s previous novel, The 158-Pound Marriage. One autobiographical parallel follows another in Irving’s recent novels, and these are often followed by little sermonettes about the need to disregard “shitty autobiographical associations that make those rabid readers of gossip warm to an occasional fiction.” And again: “Usually, with great patience and restraint, Garp would say that the autobiographical basis—if there ever was one—was the least interesting level on which to read a novel.” Setting down a rug, then pulling it out from under a reader, this is what academic literary critics, who are infinitely patient men and women, like to call novelistic playfulness.

Although no doubt Irving would detest the notion, there is a strong sense in which he is an academic novelist. He is a former student at the University of Iowa Program in Creative Writing, and while you can take the boy out of the Program in Creative Writing you can’t always take the Program in Creative Writing out of the boy. Two of Irving’s five novels—The Water-Method Man and The 158-Pound Marriage—have academic settings. But more is involved than scenes and settings. In the very first of Irving’s novels, Setting Free the Bears, which has to do with freeing the animals from the Hietzinger Zoo in Vienna, one already senses certain school-learned touches, bits, ironies. Having set a good part of this novel during World War II, Irving has one of his characters remark late in the novel, that his teacher, a Jew, “was enraged that I should be so pretentious as to dash through the war with so little mention of the Jews. I tried to explain that he should really look at my autobiography as what is loosely called fiction—a novel, say.” Irving often goes in for these Chinese-box effects—characters are writing books or shooting films within his books—and this game-playing, rather than telling a story straight out, is one of the standard marks of the academic novelist at work.

More important than John Irving’s academic roots, however, is that his writing seems very much of a special generation. In Setting Free the Bears, Siegfried, the hero of the novel, who in 1967 is twenty-one years old, remarks: “What I mean is, we’re at an interim age at an interim time; we’re alive between two times of monstrous decisions—one past, the other coming.” This quotation may make John Irving seem a political writer, but he isn’t, at least not in any obvious or direct way. What he is, I think, is a generational writer—a writer attractive to readers of a certain age. It is the young—or rather the youngish—to whom he appeals. His novels exert their greatest pull on those people who are undecided about growing up; they are college-educated, getting on and even getting up in the world, but with a bit of the hippie-dippie counterculture clinging to them still—yuppies, they have been called, the initials YUP standing for young urban professionals. A friend who is a professor at my university’s law school, for instance, recently told me that many of the younger law professors among his colleagues are nuts about the novels of John Irving. Not that this constitutes a CBS/New York Times poll, but I have never before heard of young law professors being nuts about any novelist. Why? What’s the attraction?



Irving’s second novel, The Water-Method Man, is about a graduate student in German at the University of Iowa, who only reluctantly accepts the roles of huband and father. Fred “Bogus” Trumper is his name, extreme passivity his game. The passive hero, or hero as passive, has by now become a tradition of sorts in contemporary American fiction. We have had a Dangling Man and an Invisible Man, and to these Irving adds a Water-Method Man. The title refers to a method of treatment that the novel’s hero undergoes for the difficulty he has in urinating: drinking lots and lots of water. The Water-Method Man is the most convoluted of Irving’s novels—his hero is doing a translation of an old German epic for his dissertation, while at the same time a documentary film is being made of his life—and also easily the most boring. A great many little academic games are being played out in it: dead ducks appear, people sleep with tropical fish tanks around them, the hero retells the story of Moby Dick to his child—in short, there is plenty of symbolism to go around.

Certain elements appear in the pages of The Water-Method Man that will be hallmarks in John Irving’s novels to come: the broad joke is carried a bit beyond much too far (the squeamish are advised to pass up the urological jokes and horror stories that run throughout); the rather persistent dropping off of human body parts begins in earnest; the hero turns out to be a wrestler; the main characters arrive, as they invariably do in an Irving novel, in Vienna; adorable children appear who must be protected from the world’s cruelty; and, finally, there is a celebration of the flesh (the last clause in the novel reads, “Bogus Trumper smiled cautiously at all the good flesh around him”). And, too, as with all of Irving’s novels, whatever the suffering and death that have gone before, the ending is somehow upbeat. But then wasn’t it William Dean How-ells who said that what the American public wanted was above all a tragedy with a happy ending?



The 158-Pound Marriage is Irving’s best-formed novel. Its subject is wife-and husband-swapping, with an occasional bout of ménage à quatre and a single detour into lesbianism. Of the four principals, two are writers, one a teacher and wrestling coach, one an Austrian brought up by a captain of the army of the USSR during the occupation of Vienna. It is the most sex-ridden of Irving’s novels, even though at one point its narrator says that “sex is only a temporary cure.” In the pages of The 158-Pound Marriage it has to do until something better comes along. Nothing better does. Reading this novel one is inclined to agree with one of the two wives, who, near the close, remarks, “I think we were just fers!” Something new has been added for the first time in Irving’s work, an element that will henceforth appear in all his novels; for the first time discussions of fiction appear in the middle of his fiction. “Edith and I agreed,” the narrator says, “that when the subject of fiction became how to write fiction, we lost interest. . . .”

Mutilation of various kinds continues in The 158-Pound Marriage. Men without legs, a man with a hole in his face, a dancer with a part of her foot missing supply some of the novel’s notable subtractions; children are also wounded in a blood-drenched shower-door accident, but afterward, if memory serves, all parts are present and accounted for. At this point in one’s reading in John Irving’s novels one begins to wonder about all these wounds, rips, tears, broken bones, and vitiated organs. There arises the question, to adapt a phrase of Henry James’s, of the disfigurement in the carpet.

It did not arise too urgently because John Irving’s standing as a novelist was not itself an insistent question. His first three novels gave him the reputation of an interesting but minor writer. (“Garp,” thinks the hero of Irving’s next novel, “hated the reputation of ‘small but serious.’ ”) Commercially, he appeared to be one of those novelists who would eventually have to be published by an outfit like the Fiction Collective. Then, in 1978, along came The World According to Garp, a success both critical and commercial. People not only bought this, Irving’s fourth novel, they read it; they not only read it, they loved it. “Joyous and outrageous,” wrote the critics, “full of vitality and grace,” “rich and humorous,” “brilliant,” “overwhelming,” “superb,” “wonderful,” “absolutely extraordinary.”



Extraordinary The World According to Garp is. So loaded down with incident and invention is the novel that its plot beggars recapitulation. Briefly, it is an account of the life and times of a youngish novelist, T. S. Garp, the fatherless son of a well-born woman who, quite without consciously wishing it, becomes a feminist leader and heroine. Garp’s wife is a university teacher, who teaches among other things a course in narrative technique, but it is Irving who attempts to show how much technique a narrative can have. His novel contains two separate short stories and the first chapter of another novel, The World According to Bensenhaver, which will make Garp himself a hugely bestselling novelist, even as, we now know, The World According to Garp made John Irving a bestselling novelist. Bears, wrestlers, Austria, by now old Irving stand-bys, put in their appearances. Instructions about writing and book reviewing are provided between bouts of sex (and sex, for Garp, “was always an act of terrific optimism”). Garp quotes Marcus Aurelius one moment, and the next—most unAurelianly—tups one of his childrens’s babysitters. Mutilation fans will not be disappointed. One of the principal characters in the novel is a former tight-end for the Philadelphia Eagles who has had a sex-change operation. A group of militant feminists—the Ellen Jamesians—cut out their tongues. (“But Garp . . . felt the whole history of the world is self-mutilation.”) There is a bit of couple-switching, also an assassination. The novel has an epilogue, in which two characters agree that “Garp was a man with remarkable energy.”

The World According to Garp is not so much salted as drenched in sex and violence, but so is the world drenched in sex and violence, and so, too, in recent years have a large number of novels been drenched. The sex and violence in Garp do not, in any case, go very far toward explaining the novel’s immense popularity, for these are to be had in ample supply elsewhere. In The Water-Method Man a passage runs: “You should always tell stories . . . in such a way that you make the audience feel good and wise, even a little ahead of you.” This implies that a bestseller can be rigged, but here, too, there are reasons for doubting, for if it were so easily do-able it would be done more often. In the pages of Garp, Garp’s editor feeds his authors’ manuscripts to a cleaning woman at his publishing firm: “She did not like most things, but when she said she liked something, it meant to John Wolf [the editor] that nearly everybody else was at least sure to be able to read it.” A valuable woman, clearly, every publishing house ought to have one, but I fear she exists only in John Irving’s imagination.

No, when a book such as The World According to Garp, a book with serious literary pretensions, catches on so epidemically with the public, something else, something deeper than pat formulas for constructing bestsellers is involved. In the recent book Bestsellers2 which investigates the popular fiction of America and England during the 1970’s, John Sutherland makes the point that vastly popular novels need to be considered from two points of view, the economic and the ideological. The economic has to do with the way a book is marketed. Of the ideological, Sutherland writes: “The bestseller expresses and feeds certain needs in the reading public. It consolidates prejudice, provides comfort, is therapy, offers vicarious reward or stimulus. In some socially controlled circumstances it may also indoctrinate or control a population’s ideas on politically sensitive subjects. In other circumstances, especially where sexual mores are concerned, it may play a subversive social role.”

“Ideological” has to be understood here in its loosest sense; certainly it does in considering the case of John Irving, for Irving is not, in any reasonable sense of the term, a radical or ideologue. On the contrary, in his novels he has demonstrated real disdain for people whose lives are controlled by their politics: the Ellen Jamesians in Garp and a group of Austrian radicals in his more recent novel, The Hotel New Hampshire, are equally detested by their author. The ideological freight carried by John Irving’s recent novels is not, then, political in the strict sense, but is instead to be found in Irving’s attitudes, point of view, what he himself calls his vision.

The young T.S. Garp, considering his own early writing, thinks: “What I need is vision, he knew. It will come, he repeated to himself. . . .” Has John Irving’s vision come? His novels are an extraordinary jumble, of the sentimental and the violent, of the cute and the loathsome; reading them one sometimes feels one is reading a weird collaboration between J. D. Salinger and John Hawkes, a strained effort to be, simultaneously, adorable and gruesome. In Bestsellers John Sutherland says that bestselling fiction tends to divide ideologically between the emancipated (Erica Jong, for example) and the traditional (James Michener, for example). In a strange yet evidently commercially successful way, John Irving’s latest novels tend to combine the emancipated and the traditional, the effect of which is to make his readers feel advanced in their views yet fundamentally sound in their emotions.

For instance while disdaining the wilder side of women’s liberation in Garp, Irving views it very kindly. As a writer, T. S. Garp stays home, does the cooking and cleaning, and is generally, not at all to his displeasure, the model house-husband. John Berry, the narrator in The Hotel New Hampshire, plays, quite comfortably, a roughly similar role in that novel. Yet the one character is an ardent wrestler, the other a serious weightlifter—traditionally masculine, one might even say macho, types. John Irving prides himself on his endless invention—“Garp,” he writes, “was a natural story teller; he could make things up, one right after another. . . .”—but his real invention is in the creation of these heroes. They are extremely sensitive (Garp lies down next to his young son to smell the freshness of the boy’s breath in his sleep), yet when it is required of them, brutally tough (John Berry, in The Hotel New Hampshire, kills a man with a bear-hug). These John Irving heroes, these sweet bruisers, are also permanently puerile, young men whose chief experience occurred in adolescence—it’s downhill after your middle-teens, says a character in The Hotel New Hampshire—and who have been able to arrange things so that, whatever their chronological age, they never quite have to leave adolescence.



The Hotel New Hampshire has ridden high upon the bestseller lists for better than half a year now. The New York Times, in a capsule comment on the book in its bestseller list, describes it as “Life with an eccentric family.” That description as aptly fits The Brothers Karamazov, so perhaps a better one might be, “Winning formula well in hand, John Irving strikes again.” Although Lily Berry, the daughter of the family in this novel who is herself a bestselling novelist says, “My God, the next book has got to be bigger than the first,” in fact The Hotel New Hampshire is not quite so vast in its canvas as The World According to Garp. It is about a family whose father harbors utopian illusions about running a hotel that will provide perfect hospitality, hospitality with slight psychological overtones. “People have to grow their own way,” Father says. “We provide the space.” Many of the same symbols and themes, incidents and concerns, appear here as in Garp and Irving’s earlier novels: the Austrian interlude, the bears, the physical conditioning, the sidebar discussions of fiction (“Life is serious but art is fun”), the mutilations. The appeal, too, is similar. At the heart of this novel, as of The World According to Garp, is the allure of family.

As in Garp, so in The Hotel New Hampshire, family becomes a fortress of a kind into which one withdraws with one’s children for protection against the cruelty of the world. Rape, in both novels, is a big item (“. . . rape, Garp thought, made men feel guilt by association”). Rape is indeed at the very center of The Hotel New Hampshire; the rape and recovery from rape and revenge for rape of Franny Berry are the incidents that bind the novel together. At the novel’s close, the narrator and his wife—formerly a lesbian so homely she preferred to go about in a bear costume (I’m not making this up; John Irving did)—move into a final hotel that they use as a rape crisis center.

The Hotel New Hampshire is pro-family and anti-rape. If these views do not simply take your breath away, let me go on to say that in all of John Irving’s novels, discerning good from evil is never a problem; like every other moral question, it never really comes up. There are good folks and there are bastards in these novels, and one hardly needs a program to tell one from the other. Good folks can go under, but bastards get it in the neck—and in the nether regions. (“It was not one of Garp’s better points: tolerance of the intolerant.”) As the narrator of The Hotel New Hampshire puts it: “The way the world worked was not cause for some sort of blanket cynicism or sophomoric despair; according to my father and Iowa Bob, the way the world worked—which was badly—was just a strong incentive to live purposefully, and to be determined about living well.” Now here is advice your local young law professor and a happy few million others can live with comfortably.


p>1 Dutton, 401 pp., $15.00.

2 Routledge & Kegan Paul, 268 pp., $18.95.

About the Author

Joseph Epstein is a regular contributor to COMMENTARY.

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