Everybody watch out!
John Irving is bristling with vigilance. He stabs a fretful finger down his perfectly commodious staircase: "You could trip over that pile of books." His anxious eye catches a small piece of body trim sticking out from the side of his car: "Somebody could get hurt." He explains at length, three times, how to drive a couple of miles of simple Vermont road.
"I can't restrict my imagination to my novels," says the 39-year-old author of "The World According to Garp" and four other books. "I am a worrier.
"For most of my thirties I was the hazard man -- always the one to point out to my friends that they had soft tires, the first to smell gas." In life as in fiction, he says, "until you have figured out what goes wrong, you haven't imagined enough."
Even here in the sun-dappled serenity of his country home outside Putney, Vt., which looks like a Lorimar set design for "The Writer's Life," right down to the huge, half-husky dog called Stranger, the big, friendly red-frame house converted from an old barn, the new swimming pool, the acre of lawn on which his wife Shyla and sons Colin, 16, and Brendan, 11, drift through the lengthening shade of a summer afternoon.
But stay long enough in Irving's world, and you begin to feel the lurking menace of sudden violent doom, to sense that beneath the placid rhythms of daily life is a globe of woe in waiting: from the giant sign over the garage ("The Dog Bites") to a foul-tempered goose on a nearby farm ("If you ever come running that way, Colin, watch your a--! That goose goes for the navel") to the neighbors he curses viciously for driving too fast to the larger fears for his new novel, "The Hotel New Hampshire," a violent Dickensian fable of family survival certain to be the sensation of the fall season.
Sitting on his pool-side deck, wrapped in a towel after a fast skinny-dip revealing the otter-sleek muscularity of an athlete who eats well, Irving ought to look like a man who has the world by the small print. Four years ago, he had a dubious future, three well-reviewed novels that together sold a disappointing 12,000 copies, and "I didn't qualify for a single credit card. I was still bouncing checks to local grocery stores and living like a student."
But then came "Garp," one of the rare events in American fiction to achieve the literary triple play: genuine critical excitement, best-selling public enthusiasm and a cult following (complete with T-shirts and slogans) whose devotion bordered on derangement. At times he still seems surprised by this success, as when he catches himself putting a half-finished bottle of Molson's in the refrigerator ("New England frugality") and then stops himself and throws it out: Since the "Garp" bonanza, "I've learned to do that."
Since then, too, there are more than 3 million copies of his books in print, Pocket Books has paid well over $2 million for the paperback rights to the new novel, the movie version of "Garp" is due soon, he has a townhouse in Cambridge, Mass., and for the forseeable future he will not have to take a job -- "frankly the most important thing that any book can do for any writer."
But Irving is worried. In the literary community, he says, "You pass very quickly from being someone who is looked down upon because no one knows who you are to being looked down upon because too many people know who you are."
And the new book (from Dutton with a first printing of 175,000) is a guaranteed popular success, although very different from "Garp." It is "easier to read and more difficult to understand," Irving says. "I didn't have any trouble understanding it," says Shyla, pausing in her errands to sit beside him. He ignores this. Sometimes he pays no more attention to his wife of 17 years than he would to the buzz of an air conditioner, often simply trampling over her remarks with his own, and her pretty Irish face pinches with tension. Yet, at other times, he will reach out for her with an almost reverential care, and they will nuzzle like schoolyard sweethearts. But then, vexing opposites are the rule in Irving's world:
He can be the perfect buoyant paterfamilias: Bouncing along over the mountains in his old blue Checker sedan ("The safest thing he could get short of a tank," says a writer friend), with Bob Dylan blaring on the tape machine ("I liked him until he went religious"), the family joking while Irving steers gingerly through the rutted roads; playing with the reclusive orange tomcat Pierre; or practicing wrestling holds with a slippery Brendan in the pool.
But his mood can change fast, and a thought that begins in mild-eyed rumination will often gravitate into rage. His fists rise to his chest, he clenches his jaw and his snub Yankee features cloud into anger as he rails at the book business (publishers are "adversaries" whose profits are "immoral"); and the man who created what is arguably the finest American novel of the '70s can become suddenly sullen and defensive about his reputation, speaking darkly of "backlash" and "people who are complaining of me in advance," who resent his enormous popular success, who "talk about me at New York parties," who will pan his new novel because "any book whose accessibility is so available makes the critic obsolete." Irving, an accomplished reviewer himself, knows how the critical pendulum moves, how the popular momentum of a big novel by a Mario Puzo or Joseph Heller or Norman Mailer leads to a near-inevitable backswing on the next book.
Every asset a potential liability: Even his own body -- at 5-foot-8 and 155 pounds, the hard, gym-like frame of a former AAU wrestler -- which he maintains by running several miles a day, lifting weights and wrestling with Colin, at 5-foot-10, a tough opponent who leaves Irving sore and often defeated. Irving displays his body with locker-room familiarity, whether picking up his white Volvo at the Putney Texaco in nothing but his black running shorts, or lounging wrapped in a towel at home, restlessly stroking and kneading his flesh as he talks. He likes being photographed, and after apologizing for his hair (cut short for his role in the movie) and dressing in the bright colors he favors -- lime-green jacket and red sport shirt, tan corduroys and old sandals -- he will face the camera like an opponent -- puffing his chest, crossing his arms (swelling the biceps) and slamming a powerful stare right into the center of the lens.
That's a problem: When his wife's pictures were submitted for the new book jacket, Dutton thought that some of them made him "too good looking," Irving says, so that there would be "a lot of reasons to resent me." But "even if we published a photograph of me taken from behind, and I hadn't washed my hair for a week," he says, "it isn't going to protect me from anyone who's gunning for me."
Gunning? Resentment? Sure, Irving has his detractors. In the August Harper's, Bryan F. Griffin describes him as a "hunted Philistine," a "schlock novelist . . . peering nervously under all the literary beds and explaining to anybody who would listen that 'the elitists' and 'the snobs' were out to get him." But that scrannel whine seems very far from the wood-paneled Irving enclave, where the mood is a cross between Ken Kesey and the Swiss Family Robinson; where Irving sleeps on the big water bed in the master bedroom and writes at his IBM Selectric on a loft-like balcony over the two-story-high living room; where Shyla, a professional photographer, works in her studio, and Colin -- a muscular prep-school athlete who can do a side of Rubik's Cube in less than two minutes and says that his father is "much funnier in person than he is in his books" -- is tending the yard. Not to worry.
'Them and Us'
But then, this is the man who created the gore-spattered comic cosmos of "Garp," in which an extended family faces "a them-and-us world." In the travails of novelist T.S. Garp and his grimly feminist mother, Jenny Fields, murder cavorts with slapstick, sexual mutilation cohabits with high comedy, rape and adultery abound, women are hardy survivors and men, despite paranoid anticipation and rigorous athletic preparation, are ambushed by disaster. (No wonder Irving writes his endings first!)
The same is true of "The Hotel New Hampshire" -- a richly humorous, deeply humane but much simpler saga. The 400-page story follows the seven-member Berry family from New Hampshire to Vienna and back as they found and struggle to maintain three different hotels of the same name, the first in a converted schoolhouse in Dairy, N.H. Father Win Berry believes that a good hotel is an analogue to a loving family, and in the book they become metaphors for one another. But the transient structure also allows the arrival of a host of threatening characters, from the prep-school creeps who gang-rape eldest daughter Franny to the Austrian terrorists who nearly destroy the Berrys and a few blocks of Vienna besides. But there is also comedy -- high and low -- in the incestuous longings and sexual initiation of eldest son and narrator John, and in the cantankerous antics of old Coach Bob, Win's father, whose motto for life and athletics is the same: "You've got to get obsessed and stay obsessed."
All this and more mixes in Irving's trademark me'lange, but without the ironic tension of "Garp's" third-person narrator. Irving says that he was once "guilty of large passages of prose that existed for the prose itself, but I'm much better at restraining myself now." And if the dreaded post-Garpian critical backlash occurs (several early reviews, including Esquire's, have been negative, although Time calls it "startlingly original"), it might be because some readers miss that keen descriptive talent, just as others will cavil at the return of certain stock Irving elements -- prep school, bears, Vienna, black dogs, amateur athletics, the anguish of being short -- that float in the brutal stew.
" 'Garp' was called by a number of readers bizarre, eccentric, outrageous, etc.," Irving says. "But it never was to me. I don't find that the proportion of bizarre events that stalks those characters is out of whack with what we see in the world." His fears run from the macrocosmic ("the combination of technology and disaster") to the mundane: Novelist Susan Shreve -- who met Irving at the Bread Loaf writers' conference where he "would chase cars on foot and ask them to drive slowly" -- says that he is really "very gentle, very sweet, despite the impression of roughness. We became very close because we are both Jewish mothers."
In the new novel, John is crippled psychologically by his failure to prevent Franny's rape, and begins weight lifting and running to gird himself against calamity. The real-life Irving is no less aggressive. Marvin Bell, a poet who met Irving at the Iowa Writers' Workshop, calls him "one of the bravest men I know. He likes to run in the woods, and if he's attacked by a Doberman or something, his way of dealing with that is to turn around and attack the dog!"
Obsession at 15
But Irving -- who refers to his books as "fairy tales" and "soap-operas" -- is loudly insistent that they are not autobiographical: "Both the family I grew up in and my own have been spared accidents of that higher order." Like Garp, Irving was a "townie" at prep school, the oldest by nine years of four children. He was born in Exeter, N.H., and raised by his adopted father -- Colin Irving, a Russian history teacher at Phillips Exeter Academy whom Irving considers the only father he has ever had -- and a "very strong, outspoken" mother who enjoyed sports.
Throughout a childhood that was "very rural, working in hayfields and apple orchards," he "couldn't wait to get to go to the school." But it took him five years to get out: "I had to work my a-- off to get C's except in English courses," where he began to read Hardy, Conrad, Emily Bronte , Dickens and the Russian novelists to whom he still feels a stronger affinity than to American writers. (Although a strong proselytizer for friends such as John Hawkes, Gail Godwin and Kurt Vonnegut, he calls Gu nter Grass "the greatest writer living.")
Like Garp, Irving became obsessed at 15 with both writing and athletics, and as he talks, they often seem mutually symbolic. During summer vacations, he began writing stories: "My friends thought this was a great pretension. But it was something that I had to do, as necessary as exercise," which appeals to him because "it made me feel good to be tired. I'm a pretty good insomniac unless I get a good workout." Like Garp, he tried a number of games, but felt he was too small for football ("I was always getting smothered by these big guys") and "didn't like the team aspect of the game." Wrestling was perfect, and "I loved the idea of the weight-class thing." He wrestled in the 130-pound class. "When I first went to Exeter, they thought I was going to be a real bruiser because I was 5-foot-8 and weighed about 145." But "all these guys I started out with were little guys who got huge. I never grew."
But he worked hard, and, encouraged by his mother ("my number-one supporter," he says. "We still take trips together out to see the national collegiate tournaments."), captained the team and was ranked All New England a couple of years. "I didn't really want to go to college, but I wanted to wrestle," so he went for a year to the University of Pittsburgh, "a great wrestling school," discovered "that I wasn't in that national league," and returned to New Hampshire, "got certified as a referee, did a little coaching to make money, and wrestled the free-style AAU circuit while taking classes at the University of New Hampshire."
In 1963, he dropped out and decided to go abroad. He picked Vienna for "its middle-ness, its East-Westness" and 19th-century feel, learning German at Harvard summer school where he met Shyla Leary, who was studying physics and math at Wheelock College. He spent an "idyllic couple of years" reading German and Austrian literature at the University of Vienna, and began writing seriously. As a habitual symbol in his fiction, the city is "almost like a security blanket now. I know if I can get my characters to Vienna, I can change the rules, I can make other things happen there." But in the new novel, "it's a dark place, it's hell, it's where you go when you grow up, when there's a death in the family." And it was there that he discovered trained bears: "gifted, strong, graceful animals who have been taught to do something that is not self-supporting," emblematic of "craftspeople full of old artisan skills" and with "obvious analogies to the writer's life."
Although he had only known Shyla for "about a month before I went abroad, and we hadn't seen each other for more than a year," he engineered a "long courtship by love letter." She came to Europe and they were married in Greece in 1964. "If I hadn't gotten married and wanted to have a child, I probably would have stayed in Europe," Irving says. He felt "marvelously independent. There were no expectations of me whatsoever." But in 1964 they returned and Irving graduated from the University of New Hampshire while Shyla worked in the post office. He sold a story to Redbook, which led to a fellowship at the celebrated University of Iowa writing program, where he met Vance Bourjaily and Kurt Vonnegut, who "took care of me." (Vonnegut became a close friend -- his picture is above Irving's writing desk -- and Irving now takes care of him whenever he can, inserting compliments wherever the conversation will bear it: "If Vonnegut is a kids' writer, so are Swift and Voltaire.") He stayed for two years and wrote as the master's project his first novel, "Setting Free the Bears."
Vonnegut says Irving never attended the classes, where the students' work was dissected, "because he was very broke, and had no money for babysitters or anything else." He dealt directly with Vonnegut "one-on-one." He was aloof, did not attend the parties, but radiated "the poise of a very capable athlete."
Nonetheless, his small size posed unusual threats. "He's very macho," Vonnegut says, "and he told me that one of the great humiliations of his life was that he used to ride these great big motorcycles, huge hogs. He'd be sitting in the middle of traffic and all of a sudden the bike would just lie down and he'd try and try to get the damn thing back up again."
Irving left in 1967 to take a teaching job at now-defunct Windham College in Vermont. "I needed the money," Irving says, although the movie contract for "Bears" paid for the Putney house and enabled the family to go back to Vienna, where Brendan was born in 1969, while Irving worked on the screenplay (the film was never made). They returned to the United States the next year, and continued living as academic migrants ("We moved 23 times in 11 years"), teaching at Iowa, Holyoke and Brandeis between Guggenheim, National Endowment and Rockefeller grants.
The two constants in their lives were the Putney house and Random House, where Irving published his first three books to terrific reviews and terrifying sales, declining from 6,500 for the exuberant "Setting Free the Bears" (1969) to a dismal 4,400 for his marvelously comic "The Water-Method Man" (1972) to an embarrassing 2,300 for the gloomy wife-swapping tale "The 158-Pound Marriage." But Irving never doubted his talent: "I just didn't think I'd reached an audience," and he was angry. "If you don't sell a lot, the track record is yours. And then, lo and behold, when your book finally does sell well, you hear a publisher saying, 'We have a great track record with this writer.' Well, stuff it! It's a publisher's track record all the way."
So "it was a foregone conclusion before a word of 'Garp' was written that we weren't going to stay at Random House." (But Irving is still close to his former editor, Joe Fox, with whom the Irvings have spent summer weeks on Long Island.) Although his first books have sold for very modest sums, Irving and his agent, Peter Matson, decided to take no less than $20,000 for the book then titled "Lunacy and Sorrow." Three houses were interested, but only the late Henry Robbins -- a fan of Irving's previous work with a new imprint at Dutton -- could meet both the price and Irving's standards. Nan Talese, then at Simon & Schuster, says she could offer "only a third of what he wanted. You can imagine how I ate my heart out later."
Robbins and Irving found an immediate rapport, and an immediate success: "Garp" sold 115,000 copies in hardcover; Pocket Books (which had paid $110,000 for 10 years of reprint rights) sold 2 million copies in one of the most lavish promotional efforts in recent memory. "Yeah, we had the T-shirts, the sweat bands, the caps and all that kind of stuff," says Ron Bush, head of Pocket Books, who paid a reported $2.3 million for the rights to "The Hotel New Hampshire" and is already worried that rabid "Garp" fans will not wait until the summer of 1982 for the paperback. Irving professes dismay at the hype: "Sure, I had a lot of fanatical sort of cult-worship after 'Garp' , but half of them said, 'I haven't enjoyed anything so much since 'The Sound of Music.' "
On Moral Fiction
Vonnegut says that Irving has a "very nice set of morals, questioning schemes of reward and punishment." Now that he has been "massively rewarded," Vonnegut says, "he's measuring himself against the literary works of the past." And now, "when the money goes off the scale," it's not surprising that Irving is tense. But for a man who has made it to the top of the literary and pecuniary heap, Irving can be surprisingly hard on the institutions that he used to get there.
"With the exception of Henry Robbins, I believe that a writer has an adversary relationship with his publisher. I never knew that publishers had publicists until 'The World According to Garp', and they all have secure incomes higher than mine . . . If someone has applied himself to an art for 15 or 20 years and they've gotten good at it, and they're expected to do something else to support themselves while the industry that sells this craft supports itself very well, something is badly wrong. Morally wrong.
"The old saw used to be that Jacqueline Susann and Judith Krantz and all those idiots supported all the incoming writers and therefore we should not complain about the amount of money they got. Well, I see more and more successes of that kind. Increasingly now, I must count myself among them, and it's not upon me to give my money to the young writer. I don't even think that Harold Robbins should have to part with any of his ill-got gains; that's not the problem. The problem is that publishing has never been a business. If it's to remain honorable, its first obligation is to publish those things with complete support and integrity which it knows are not going to make the money."
He can explode with equal volume -- as he does over the dining-room whispers of a country inn -- at those in the New York literary establishment with a "perverted, graduate-student" notion that "some kind of purposeful obscurity reflects your seriousness of purpose. Ergo, if something is a monster to read, it must have been written with the greatest care and scrupulousness. And if something reads too easily -- far worse, if any fool can read it -- well, then, you don't have to be a graduate student to interpret it."
He says with yeoman pride that "I'm not an intellectual. My father is, and I know the difference. I know the kind of mind that is tuned to grasping abstractions and technically new things." Irving is the first to admit that he is uncomfortable with unfamiliar challenges. "I can be depressed for days by failing to put a door knob on, and I used to have a lawyer make out my income-tax form even when the government owed me money . . . I don't think I'm especially intelligent, but I have certain limited talents and the imagination is one of them."
Similarly, "I was not a natural athlete. But I became a good wrestler because I did it more than anybody else. I really drilled it. And then when I got up to a certain national level of competition, I was beaten by people who had just tremendous natural ability."
The World After 'Garp'
But now, with a winning record in the literary nationals, can he keep his hold on things? "We live a very informal life," Shyla says somewhat uncertainly -- over rack of lamb and two kinds of wine. "It's not like we were one kind of people for 14 or 15 years and now we're suddenly somebody different because of this book, although in a sad way, that does affect us." She recalls that, just after "Garp" was published, "six or 10 hippies a day would turn up at the house. They'd just wander in and say, 'Hey, Man.' John used to sign a book or two for them and then send them on their way." She sighs at the thought that it could happen again. "I understand now very clearly why celebrities associate only with other celebrities in an ease of emotion. On the other hand, we don't want to do that, do we?" she asks Irving. "Well," he says, "one of the comforts of being in the company of other people who are famous is obvious -- you don't have to talk about it."
But Irving insists that "the thing that most people fail to understand is that I am not in a celebrity business." Of course, there are those who would prefer to see him that way, and from Bread Loaf to the Hamptons, the literary rumor mill grinds out stories about Irving's sexual magnetism. Of the stories, Irving says, "that is so plainly not a literary question that I refuse to even answer it," and as for writers-as-celebrities, that's "a really stupid, sports-minded mentality."
And yet he has hardly avoided the movie "Garp," directed by George Roy Hill and starring Robin Williams. "I feel absolutely wonderful about my involvement with the movie. I can't defend myself from what other people will see or imagine in that. I was offered the screenplay and I didn't want to do it. I didn't think 'Garp' would make a very good movie."
But he made himself available to discuss the screenplay, and after he had proofread the galley sheets of the new novel, "I moved onto the set and helped Hill any way I could." He watched 14 hours of uncut film "before I decided I'd throw my support behind it," assured himself of its "scrupulousness and integrity" (here Irving raps his tanned knuckles on the table top) and then threw himself into it: "They asked me if I'd play a coach," Irving says, "and I said 'Sure.' But when I worked with them a little bit longer, I felt that I could do a better job if I were the referee. I could be in complete control of the wrestling match and I could really look after Williams and see that he didn't get hurt." He got Colin and Brendan bit parts in the picture as students, and Colin is now considering a career in theater.
Irving bridles at the merest suggestion that the big money or the movie exposure could damage his future as a writer. "What am I going to do, turn around and start writing for TV Guide? There's a great, largely American myth that integrity crumbles. You either have it or you don't have it. If one's integrity is going to crumble, it's when you're making 6 thou a year and teaching three sections of freshman English and being badly treated by the head of an English department who has read less than you, speaks of it less well and is a super----- of a human being.
"I can make one mistake now -- out of ego, personal restlessness or reasons other than that a book is ready to be written -- I could write a book too soon. I haven't cranked out a book yet, and my instinct is to go slower and slower. I got nothing but good out of waiting on 'The Hotel New Hampshire.' And next time, I'm going to wait a good long time."