THE CIDER HOUSE RULES By John Irving Morrow. 560 pp. $18.95
JOHN IRVING'S sixth novel works so hard at being amiable and endearing, comes to the reader so openly and goodnaturedly, that many readers most certainly will respond to it with affection and pleasure. Perhaps it is to confess a shortcoming, but I regret to say that I am not among them. I am not without a sentimental streak, and within the privacy of my reading room I have been known to shed a modest tear or two, but the relentless barrage of mush to which The Cider House Rules subjected me was more than I could bear; at its close I determined to swear off sugar, real or artificial, for at least a month.
This is a matter of taste. As for matters of literature, let it be noted that The Cider House Rules is a considerable improvement over its predecessor, The Hotel New Hampshire, a flaccid, witless novel that bordered on unintentional self- parody. The new novel is tighter, less self-indulgent, relatively unencumbered by sophomoric maxims such as those that litter The Hotel New Hampshire. But like that novel, it still falls far short of what Irving accomplished in The World According to Garp; having spent so much of himself on that passionate, exuberant book, Irving has yet to find the right subject and story for his particular, if somewhat peculiar, gifts.
Above all else Irving is a storyteller, and in Garp he had himself the kind of story a writer can spend a lifetime looking for. My hunch is that Garp is about to come in for a critical backlash, its great popularity probably being more than the intelligentsia can tolerate, but if this happens it will be both unfair and unwarranted. Garp is a book of irresistible energy, off-the-wall humor, unblinkered vision and aching humanity; the reader who goes uncharmed by the transsexual football player, or unmoved by the death of Garp's young son, is a cold customer indeed. Garp is not without sentimentality, and the morals toward which it points are not exactly profound ones, but the sentimentality is held within check and the morals, however obvious, certainly are universal; what holds the book together is its sense of the world as a violent, difficult, unpredictable, even outrageous place in which human beings reach out to each other for love and mutual protection against the unknown and the unfair.
That same sense is present in The Cider House Rules, but the novel is totally devoid of the energy and unpredictability that characterize Garp; it's as though Irving knows the words but can't find the music. He's assembled his customary cast of mildly eccentric characters and trotted them through the customary paces, but at the end there is no feeling that they -- and therefore you, the reader -- have been anywhere or done anything interesting. It's not so much that the trip is unpleasant as that it's pointless.
This, need it be said, is not as Irving intended it to be. The Cider House Rules aims to be about a great many things, all of them important: the sanctity of human life and the complex, painful questions raised about it when abortion is the issue; the outcast position of the orphan in a world of families; the dogged human search for a true home; the impossibility of devising inflexible rules for the governance of human behavior; the capacity of the human heart and mind for heroism. These are big issues, and scarcely boring ones; in The Cider House Rules, it's the story that's boring.
It has, in brief, to do with a physician named Wilbur Larch who sets up shop in an orphanage at St. Cloud's, a dismal inland hamlet in Maine. Women come to the orphanage for two reasons: to give birth to babies which the orphanage will then attempt to place, or to abort their pregnancies. This latter is illegal, but Larch believes it is as important to "deliver mothers" as to deliver babies, and therefore practices both as obstetrician and as abortionist. One baby whom he does deliver is given the name of Homer Wells by a nurse; several attempts to place him with adoptive parents prove unsuccessful because he is a "true orphan" whose "only home will always be at St. Cloud's." It is Homer who soon becomes the novel's central character -- though Larch, it could be said, remains the novel's central presence -- and whose search for home becomes its principal story.
He finds that home, it seems for a time, when as a youth he spends a summer with the prosperous, affectionate Worthington family at its coastal house and apple orchard. There he falls in love with Candy, his only close friend's girlfriend, fathers a child by her while the friend is off at war, and later enters into a complicated triangle composed of equal measures of love and deceit. He is happy, but he is also possessed by his love for Larch -- his spiritual if not actual father -- and troubled by a sense that he is not where he ought to be, that his real place in life is at St. Cloud's. That he will eventually return to it is a foregone conclusion; the how and why of it are meant to give the novel its plot and suspense.
THERE IS NOT, unfortunately, enough of either to sustain one's interest through what is a very long and discursive novel. What may be most surprising to admirers of Garp is that The Cider House Rules is a novel in which almost nothing happens. It has its share of deaths both natural and accidental, to be sure, but there is no real action to it, either psychological or actual. There's a lot of talk, and a lot of information is presented about medicine and other subjects on which Irving has informed himself, but there's nothing really going on -- there's almost none of that wonderfully chaotic human clutter that brings Garp so exuberantly to life.
This no doubt has much to do with the absence of any memorable characters; Homer is the novel's center, but he exists more as the personification of Orphan than as an individual in his own right, and none of the secondary characters manages to rise above the pervasive air of sappy amiability. It also has much to do with Irving's penchant for coining stupefying maxims. This is considerably more controlled here than in The Hotel New Hampshire, but it bursts into flower whenever Larch sits down to write in his journal. "When you lie," he writes, "you feel as if you have cheated fate -- your own, and everybody else's," or, "History is composed of the smallest, often undetected mistakes," or, "Adolescence. Is it the first time in life we discover that we have something terrible to hide from those who love us?" These musings, like the dithyrambs of Kahlil Gibran, do not fare well under the test of cold scrutiny.
It should be mentioned that throughout The Cider House Rules frequent mention is made of Charles Dickens and Charlotte Bronte; much reading is done at the orphanage in David Copperfield and Jane Eyre, and much quotation is done from both. If it is, as it seems to be, Irving's intention thereby to identify his work with the great tradition of the 19th-century British novel, The Cider House Rules itself presents rather persuasive evidence that the comparison is something less than apt.