The God-haunted fiction of John Irving
It has been seven years since the publication of his last novel, and five years since he announced that he was well on his way to completing his next opus, then titled Darkness as a Bride. Other than a surprise appearance as a book reviewer in The New York Times in August, John Irving has kept his fans waiting for quite a while. But it’s finally (almost) here: Less than a month from now, John Irving will publish The Last Chairlift.
The new novel, his 15th, promises to feature a family as quirky as any in Irving’s corpus. An unexpected pregnancy, a fatherless son, the full gamut of sexual expression, ghosts and avatars and—one can only assume, since this is John Irving—some wrestling and some infidelity and some bears.
John Irving: "I was always interested in the power of belief and what it was that people believed in, without feeling that I much resembled a believer myself."
Irving is suddenly 80 years old, a bit of a shock considering he has always appeared quite youthful. (How can John Irving be 80? I am 22.) His early novels, including Setting Free the Bears (1968) and The Water-Method Man (1972) earned some critical acclaim but modest commercial success. It was not until after his fourth novel, The World According to Garp (1978), that Irving became an international phenomenon—compared to Charles Dickens (one of his own favorite authors), featured on the cover of Time and honored with the National Book Award for Fiction in 1980. A popular movie adaptation of Garp starring Robin Williams, Glenn Close and John Lithgow also introduced Irving to a new audience.
Garp is a sprawling novel at over 600 pages, but quite readable; when I first picked it up (at the actual age of 22) I couldn’t put it down—except to cry at the echt Irving moments when an act of bravery or ardor or violence forcibly and dramatically altered the lives of his characters in abrupt ways.
The years following brought The Hotel New Hampshire, The Cider House Rules (more about that in a minute), A Prayer for Owen Meany, A Son of the Circus and five more. The novels have become more and more autobiographical in many ways, and some would have benefited from a diet: The Last Chairlift is perhaps his heftiest tome at 912 pages.
John Irving: "It is not sufficient for them to have their beliefs and to allow you to have yours. It is necessary that they bring you on board. Pot smokers are a lot like that too.”
America didn’t pay much attention to The World According to Garp when it was released, though both The Hotel New Hampshire and A Son of the Circus were reviewed in later years. Richard A. Blake, S.J., a longtime editor at America, didn’t care for the former. “After the whizbang publicity fades and the laughter and energy fizzles, The Hotel New Hampshire leaves a bitter aftertaste,” Blake wrote in a 1981 review, “The world according to Irving is a grim, unfeeling locale, a hotel or rather a series of hotels, where individuals check in and out without ever caring who is in the next room.”
I interviewed Irving for America in December 2017 in Toronto, where he was writing drafts of what would become The Last Chairlift in longhand on yellow legal pads. Irving’s most recent novel at the time, 2015’s Avenue of Mysteries, had featured a protagonist named Juan Diego whose sister received visions of the Virgin Mary. Throughout the novel (much of it set in Mexico), statues weep and the supernatural repeatedly intrudes on reality. Other characters included a Jesuit scholastic and a slum priest. Irving also quoted (as he has in a number of his novels) Graham Greene: “There is always one moment in childhood when the door opens and lets the future in.”
Was there something of a Catholic sensibility to his writing, I wondered? Yes and no. “What I wanted to do in this novel was to make the miraculous very real, while the institution of the church itself is severely criticized,” Irving told me. “It is impossible to spend even as much time as I spent in Mexico and in those basilicas, those cathedrals, those churches, in the presence of those various virgins, and the many people you see on their knees asking something of them—it is impossible not to feel the strength of faith in those virgins so many people have.”
John Irving: "What I wanted to do in [Avenue of Mysteries] was to make the miraculous very real, while the institution of the church itself is severely criticized."
At the same time, Irving has long been a vocal supporter of legal abortion, a major theme in The Cider House Rules, and is vehement in his criticism of the Catholic Church for its opposition to abortion. While he found Pope Francis a nice change from previous popes, “I remain dubious when [Pope Francis] has said that he believes we, the church in general, have emphasized too much the gay marriage issue and the abortion rights issue—which so many, as he admits, good and practicing Catholics are on the liberal side of.”
“Perhaps one day, if not in my lifetime or yours, some relenting on the gay marriage issue strikes me as more likely than any giving-in on the abortion issue. Which, especially in Third World countries, puts so many poor and disadvantaged women in a minority and subservient role,” he continued. “I would not want to be born a girl in a Third World economy where the Catholic Church is calling the shots.”
At the same time, it is clear that faith (or its absence) plays an important role in Irving’s fiction, even if his characters and plots almost always serve to resist or complicate the role of organized religion. Irving, who was raised a Congregationalist but does not belong to any organized religious denomination, writes characters who, like Flannery O’Connor’s American South, seem somehow God-haunted.
“In school and university I took every academic course in religion and the history of religions. Because I was always interested in the power of belief and what it was that people believed in, without feeling that I much resembled a believer myself,” Irving said. “In the same vein, I would say that I’m often as resistant to the confidence of atheists as I am to the confidence of true believers.”
“I find the most outspoken atheists and true believers also have in common the desire to bring you into their fold. It is not sufficient for them to have their beliefs and to allow you to have yours. It is necessary that they bring you on board. Pot smokers are a lot like that too.”
In a review of A Prayer for Owen Meany for The Washington Post in 1989, Stephen King put it another way. Irving, he said, “writes novels in the unglamourous but effective way Babe Ruth used to hit home runs….He does not dance, duck, dodge or beat around the burning bush; he simply walks up to the subject of divinity and briskly smites it, hip and thigh.”
Stephen King on John Irving: "He does not dance, duck, dodge or beat around the burning bush; he simply walks up to the subject of divinity and briskly smites it, hip and thigh."
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James T. Keane