John Irving: Wrestling With The Great American Novel

Photo of Erdinch Yigitce
10 January 2017

A contemporary master of the form, John Irving is one of the most recognizable and best selling American novelists writing today, known for his Dickensian narratives, eccentric characters and preoccupation with themes of sex and violence, art and academia.

John Winslow Irving was born in Exeter, New Hampshire in 1942. After graduating from the University of New Hampshire in 1965, Irving went on to receive a Masters degree in English from the University of Iowa, where he became lifelong friends with fellow student and future novelist Kurt Vonnegut. Irving began teaching across various American universities to support his young family, briefly sojourning in Vienna, and published his first novel Setting Free the Bears (1968) at the tender age of 26. Irving has often expressed the profound influence of Charles Dickens and 19th century writing on the kaleidoscopic range and rich detail of his novels. The densely plotted, Dickensian sprawl of his picaresque second novel The Water-Method Man was published in 1972.

While his early novels were moderately received by critics and sold relatively few copies, Irving’s most famous work, and the book that launched him into the wider public consciousness, remains the macabre, blackly comic The World According to Garp (1978). Adapted into an Academy Award winning film in 1982, Irving’s fourth novel is a painfully funny, often violent saga focusing on the life and death of the tragic T.S Garp, the illegitimate son of a nurse and feminist mother during World War Two. The plot follows the young Garp and his mother as they move to Vienna, where he starts a career as a writer. Filled with quirky characterization and irreverent humor, the novel was highly praised for its energy, stylistic innovations and structure, and was shortlisted for the National Book Award for Fiction in 1979.

His novels often contain semi-autobiographical elements. An avid wrestler, competing in tournaments till the age of 34, the sport of wrestling is a recurring theme in Irving’s work, along with the repeated motifs of academic life, sex, the city of Vienna and the process of writing. However, he has vehemently countered criticism that his novels recycle the same ideas, stating that ‘repetition in fiction is the necessary concomitant of having something worthwhile to say.’ Other essential Irving works includes the dark, grotesque comedy about religious martyrdom, A Prayer For Owen Meany (1989).

In 2000, he won an Academy Award for the script adaptation of his 1985 novel The Cider House Rules, a dysfunctional family tale which explores the ethics of abortion. Irving was inducted into the American Academy of Arts and Letters in 2001. In recent years Irving has settled in Vermont and used the state as inspiration for some of his works. His thirteenth novel In One Person was published in May 2012.

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