Reading a John Irving novel is not for the light of heart. It is an experience, sometimes disturbing, often emotionally draining, always wonderfully entertaining. I only read one Irving novel a year, and only then when I can set aside vast quantities of time for it (generally around the Christmas holiday). This is not a bad thing. Irving’s work requires a certain level of dedication, not because he is hard to read (his writing is delightfully smooth and fluid), but because he makes intense demands upon you as a reader. You cannot read him breezily. You cannot put him down and come back to him two weeks later. His novels are crammed full of detail and information, so much so that you come to care about his characters in a way few writers ever achieve. Thus, when Irving puts his characters through the ringer, which he inevitably does, it just about tears your heart right out of your chest. Finishing an Irving novel is like coming to the end of a great and wondrous marathon; you are exhausted, strung out, defeated, but also strangely energized, enlivened, and victorious.
Irving’s style and methods hark back to the 19th century. Indeed, his heroes are writers working on an epic scale, Charles Dickens, Gunter Grass, Gabriel Garcia Marquez. He never bought into modernism, saying once that he thought Hemingway and the modernists got it all wrong, that 20th century writers didn’t add a single worthwhile element to the art of novel writing. Strong opinions, which are another hallmark of Irving’s work. Today, when so many other writers refuse to take a stand, when our great literary voices beggar off because “all is relative,” you can find Irving squarely on one side or the other, usually loudly declaring where he stands.
He remains one of the most inventive, courageous and defiant voices in American literature. And the fact of his success continues to prove that the novel works best when it succeeds as a “good story, well told.”
John Irving Books to Read:
A Prayer for Owen Meaney, The Cider House Rules, A Widow for One Year, Until I Find You, The World According to Garp, Last Night at Twisted River, The Hotel New Hampshire.
John Irving Links: