Close Encounters of the Literary Kind, Part IX: John Irving

 

It was the early 1990s and I was working in a bookstore. John Irving’s recently published A Prayer for Owen Meany ended up on the remainder table for about $5.00 and I decided to give it a try. I had seen Robin Williams in the film version of The World According to Garp and really liked the quirky style of the dialogue and character situations. So, after work one night I opened Owen Meany and came across this line:

“I am doomed to remember a boy with a wrecked voice.”

From that moment on I was hooked. I had to find out who this was and what had happened to the boy. It was one of the saddest and funniest books I have ever read, and I became an instant fan of Irving. He has been called the American Dickens, due to his narrative style and his love for the nineteenth century giant. There was something engagingly old fashioned about Irving’s writing style; it was a far cry from the straight, high fantasy I had been reading at the time. Irving’s style was easy to follow and easy to get lost in. Irving’s books were also big books that required a certain time commitment that some of the other authors I had been spending time with did not require. I spent many afternoons hanging out with Owen Meany and Johnny Wheelwright. I was just twenty years old and the call of more serious literature, although at the time I did not know it, was just around the corner. John Irving was that author that really pushed me toward literature and away from fantasy.

I do not like all of John Irving’s novels. Some are tiresome and difficult to get through. The first novel that I had trouble getting through was The Hotel New Hampshire. I can remember reading it and being about 200 pages or so into the narrative when my grandmother died. I wrote the date of her death on top of the page and put the book down forever. It seemed like a good place to stop at the time. I didn’t pick up another John Irving novel until The Son of the Circus, which I loved.

Fast-forward a number of years. Irving is one of the authors I have always wanted to hear speak in person, but he never seems to promote his books like other authors. I was disappointed when he failed to do a book tour for Last Night in Twisted River, the first Irving book I read in years, and one that I liked quite a lot. When he published In One Person and failed to promote it once again, I gave up on getting a chance to see him. Suddenly word comes that he’s reading in Portsmouth, New Hampshire for the Reader’s on the New Hampshire Stage series. I quickly purchased tickets.

I have heard that Irving is not the most charismatic of authors. In fact, I have heard that he can be rude at time and often pompous, so I did not hold out much hope for a transformative evening. Needless to say, when Irving took the stage I found him to be engaging, charming, and genuinely interested in the audience. Although he only read from a short section of In One Person, he did speak for nearly thirty minutes about his craft. For anyone wishing to become a writer I think he offered valuable advice. I was most pleased by the fact that during the course of the evening he never once mentioned writing programs. In fact, he talked more about how important it is for a writer to be a reader first. In addition he discussed how his novels are always end driven. Although this did not set well with the poststructuralist in me, I can appreciate what it is he is doing. For example, the entire narrative of A Prayer for Owen Meany is leading up to “the shot,” which I will not spoil here for those readers who may not have read the novel yet. Anyway, the reader knows from the very beginning that the character of Owen is destined for something great and tragic, but, as Irving pointed out, Owen doesn’t know it.

Perhaps most disappointing, however, was the fact that he was not signing any books that night. We were informed that he had recently undergone hand surgery and was unable to sign. This was a personal blow to me since I do not have a signed John Irving in my collection. Nevertheless, I the night was enjoyable enough and it is not often one gets to meet a literary celebrity.

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