Sunday, June 26, 2011

What are you reading? John Irving’s fictional landscape

Presented to the Club on June 13, 2011 by David T. Noyes

"What are you reading?" Such was the signature greeting of my mentor, Dr. Guy W. Leadbetter, Chief of Urology at the University of Vermont Medical School. Of course, despite the rigorous health sciences program of Medical School, and a residency training program consuming 80 or more hours a week caring for patients, he was not referring to academics. He wanted to know what I was reading for fun. What imaginary story of intrigue was capturing my interest? Or, perhaps, whose biography was garnering my attention. He didn’t care that the book might not be great or famous or even popular — only that he felt it was critically important to be stimulating one’s mind with something other than medicine. He himself was a great fan of Louis L’Amour — the American author who described his novels as “Frontier Stories.” I believe Dr. Leadbetter claimed to have read all 105 of L’Amour’s books.

This was the same man who, following any conference presentation, challenged each individual in the audience with the requirement to have a question at the ready. His caveat: “If you don’t have a question, then you weren’t paying attention.” (Kind of reminds you a bit of the Monday Evening Club, doesn’t it?)

When I entered medical school, I was certain I wanted to be a pediatrician. At that time, the third year curriculum required two months of OB/GYN, two months of psychiatry, two months of pediatrics, three months of medicine and three months of surgery. After serving on the Pediatric hospital ward for the first of the two required months, I was even surer that this was the career path I would take. However, the second month in a local pediatrician’s office, proved to be my undoing — one screaming child after another. Talk about cluster headaches at the end of the day! I simply couldn’t manage it.

It was during my surgery rotation, that I first encountered Dr. Leadbetter. At that time, he was in his early 50s. He had written five lead articles for the New England Journal of Medicine. He had conceived, and invented two different pediatric urologic operations — one for severe incontinence, the other for ureteral reflux. Tireless in his pursuit of achieving the best possible outcomes for his patients, he expected 110 percent effort from his staff, but only because he lead by example. A giant in the field, he would go on to become the president of the American Urologic Association.

Yet there was a certain air of the absent minded professor about him. In those days smoking was allowed in the hospital (although not in the patient rooms). He would usually be smoking his pipe when he arrived for compulsory Saturday morning teaching rounds. The residents would gather outside each patient’s room and discuss why the patient was in the hospital, providing up to the minute details of his or her current condition. The entire entourage would then go into the room to visit with the patient and learn small, but important nuances from the master. One day Dr Leadbetter simply stuffed his pipe in his back pocket just before entering one the rooms. He must have thought it was out, but ten minutes or so later, it was obvious that his pants were smoking! He was on fire!

Also, in contrast to the usual image of a surgical department chief, he always was sincere and gentle in his conversation.

I chose to spend a one week elective with Dr. Leadbetter, and I became hooked. I wanted to become a urologist and complete a training program under his watchful guidance. Perhaps, we all have had such figures appear in our lives at crucial turning points. One of my most treasured possessions is a photograph from the final year of my training, of Dr. Leadbetter and me at an operating room table working together on a patient. I keep it on my office bookshelf.

We have all heard it said that a given critic “couldn’t put a book down.” I’m not that person. In fact, it’s fair to say that I have never read a book I couldn’t put down. If I’m reading in the evening after a long day, I’m quite likely to fall asleep even during a very exciting plot twist. On vacation, relaxed, reading mid afternoon in a comfortable chair, I’m very likely to find myself napping mid chapter. Furthermore, I find I don’t have the patience to read, even the most intriguing novel, for more than an hour or two at a time. I have to walk, stretch or do something physical before I can sit back down again with the book. And I gave myself permission many years ago to put a book down permanently if it wasn’t entertaining. I don’t feel the compulsion to slog through a book just because someone else has proclaimed it to be good. Most recently I found this to be true with both Thomas Pynchon’s recent works: the 773-page Mason and Dixon, and the 1083-page Against the Day. Both highly acclaimed, both with a scattered multitude of characters and little to no common thread tying scenes together. Umberto Eco’s 1983 novel The Name of the Rose was the last book I forced myself to finish.

Perhaps at some point in your life, a specific novel has held you spellbound. You feel a special affinity for the author’s point of view. Or you develop an intimate appreciation for the characters. John Irving’s 1989 novel, A Prayer for Owen Meany, was such a book for me. As a product of the anti-war, antiestablishment 60’s, and as a man with a Congregationalist faith, I found special resonance with Irving’s observations. In the Forward to the novel, Irving credits Frederick Buechner, his former teacher at Exeter, for his help with the manuscript and the Preface includes the following Buechner quote: “Not the least of my problems is that I can hardly even imagine what kind of an experience a genuine, self-authenticating religious experience would be. Without somehow destroying me in the process, how could God reveal himself in a way that would leave no room for doubt? If there were no room for doubt, there would be no room for me.”

Prominently noted throughout the novel is the incompetence of the national leaders of the day--especially Johnson’s expansion of the Vietnam War, to the ultimate sacrifice of 58,000 young men. JFK’s trysts with Marilyn Monroe (and Jackie’s apparent willingness to be deceived), receive the reader’s attention. Irving satirizes such American phenomena as teenagers with their rock music and marijuana; and mocks the onset of sycophantic television evangelists selling Jesus like junk food. (I’m reminded of one of my favorite bumper stickers of the era — TELEVANGELISTS DO MORE THAN LAY PEOPLE).

Irving gives us Owen Meany, a young man from a modest and unpretentious background. Owen always does and says the right thing. He is aided by prophetic powers and a single-mindedness that makes him capable of achievements far beyond expectation. He can’t explain his actions, except to note that he is confident that his experiences will be needed some day. Throughout Owen’s life, he is continually practicing for what turns out to be the courageous event that ultimately culminates in his heroic death.
Conan Doyle’s Sherlock Holmes once said that “life is infinitely stranger than anything which the mind of man could invent.” And so, exactly 20 years after the publication of this Irving novel, we have the saga of Chesley “Sully” Sullenberger landing his US Airways plane in the Hudson River in January of 2009, saving all 155 passengers. Like Owen Meany, his whole life seems to have been in training for this event — he graduated for the US Air Force Academy, where he was one of only a handful of cadets to participate in the glider program and by the time he was a senior he was instructing the younger cadets in the technique. At graduation, he received the Outstanding Cadet Airmanship Award as the top flier at the Academy. Sullenberger served as a fighter pilot for the Air Force, piloting the McDonnell Douglas F-4 Phantom II from 1975 to 1980. He advanced to become a flight leader and a training officer. While in the Air Force, he was a member of the official aircraft accident investigation board. Since 2007 he had run his own safety consulting business, Safety Reliability Methods Inc., which provided "emergency management, safety strategies and performance monitoring to the aviation industry.” He had also been involved in a number of accident investigations conducted by the USAF and the National Transportation and Safety Board. He served the Air Line Pilots Safety Association as safety chairman, accident investigator, and national technical committee member. Instrumental in developing and implementing the Crew Resource Management manual that is used by US Airways, he has taught the course to hundreds of other airline members. And so, indeed, Mr. Sullenberger’s heroic actions and his lifelong preparation for just such a calamity, provide a prime example of Life imitating Art.

When interviewed in 1989, at the time of publication of this novel, Irving reflected: “Like most teenagers, for 19 years I sat in church and hated every minute of it. But the accumulated time takes a toll or leaves you with images that cast a doubt on one’s former atheism.” It was the element of precognition in the Gospels that appealed to his artistic imagination. “One event that always got me was that Jesus told his disciples that they were going to betray him.” Owen Meany issues a series of prophecies — including one of his own death — that become reality. “What degree of religious belief I can manage owes as much to personal experience as it does to all those years of training within the church. When I am moved to see beyond my usual doubt, when I am moved to something that approaches real faith, it seems to me, I am basing those instincts for belief on personal experience as much as I am on any formal religious training.”

Irving’s eleventh novel, Until I Found You, gives us a protagonist, Jack Burns, whose mother is a famous tattoo artist. She drags him as a child around through various tattoo capitals in Europe while searching for his father, a church organist, who is addicted to being tattooed. And so Irving writes: “In this way, in increments both measurable and not, our childhood is stolen from us — not always in one momentous event but often in a series of small robberies, which add up to the same loss.” Eventually, Jack goes on to become a famous movie star playing mostly female roles. But his psychiatrist bluntly asks: “Is it because of your mother’s lies to you, or your missing father, that you are an unanchored ship — in danger of drifting wherever the wind or the currents, or the next sexual encounter take you?”

Many have surmised that this novel is Irving’s attempt to resolve the themes of his life and work. His biological father, John Wallace Blunt, divorced Irving’s mother, Frances, before he was born. Blunt disappeared from his son’s life and went on to become a hero during WWII. Frances remarried, this time to Colin Irving, a Slavic languages and literature major at Harvard and a Russian history instructor at Phillips Exeter Academy. John Wallace Blunt, Jr. thus became John Irving. “I have never lost a single night’s sleep wondering or imagining who my biological father is,” Irving says: “I passed up several opportunities I could have had to confront him. I wasn’t interested.” He said of searching for one’s biological roots: “It’s not going to do any good. Unless you’re looking for something to attach your victimhood to, which is a common ailment of the contemporary time.”

In a passage from The World According to Garp, Irving writes: “If Garp could have been granted one vast naïve wish, it would have been that he could make the world safe. For children and for grownups. The world struck Garp as unnecessarily perilous for both.” But, Irving claims, he simply uses the theme of an absent parent for the same reason that Charles Dickens did; because orphans make for good stories.

The family lived with Irving’s grandmother in Exeter, N.H. until John was almost seven years old. From this experience, his grandmother, who had three daughters and no sons, often told him how proud she was of “her boy.” She had graduated from Wellesley with an English Literature major, but apparently she did not enjoy Irving’s work. She read his first novel and stopped after that (which Irving has said is probably a good thing). She told him that she disapproved of the language and the subject matter. Furthermore, from reviews that she had read about the other books, it looked to her as though things did not improve with maturity. She made no effort to read the subsequent four novels that followed the first and died in l982 almost reaching her 100th birthday.

Irving says he would not have qualified for admission to Exeter via the normal admissions process. He was a weak student due to dyslexia, although no one knew that at the time. He gained entrance as a faculty child. Because he failed both Latin and math his senior year, he was required to remain at the Academy for an unprecedented fifth year, graduating in 1961. When he was asked to recall his Exeter experience, he said: “I’m eternally grateful to the Academy for its rigorousness. I’m a hard worker, and I had to be at Exeter — needing five years to complete the four-year program. What Exeter can’t necessarily prepare a student for, are the kinds of experiences the characters in my novels generally face: sorrow, loss, grief, or dysfunction. No school does.”

Exeter was where Irving came to love wrestling. He was team captain in his senior year and actively competed until he was 34. “My life in wrestling was one-eighth talent and seven-eighths discipline. I believe that my life as a writer consists of one-eighth talent and seven-eighths discipline too.” In the movie, The World According to Garp, Irving plays the referee because: “it was a non speaking part,” and the original actor proved to be inept because he had no wrestling experience. Irving was voted into the National Wrestling Hall of Fame in 1992.

From Exeter, he went on to the University of Pittsburgh, predominantly so he could pursue his wrestling ambitions and compete with the top athletes. However, when it became apparent to him that he would be, at best, a backup for an All American at any of his possible weight classes, he opted to transfer to the University of New Hampshire. Here he received a graduation prize in recognition of a “high degree of creativity in an academic program.” He married his first wife and became a father while he was still an undergraduate. Following graduation from UNH he entered the University of Iowa’s writing workshop, where he was mentored by Kurt Vonnegut from 1965 until 1967. (you may recall that we heard Bob Anderson quote Vonnegut in his paper earlier this year) He could only find time to write two hours a day, waking at 5 a.m. for the two prized hours of peace and quiet before his son, Colin, awoke. Irving supported his family with jobs in the university library restacking books, teaching one undergraduate writing course, selling cowhorns, bells, stadium cushions and pennants at the home football games, and waiting tables in “a nauseating restaurant out on the Coralville strip.” He never imagined that he would be able to make a living from his writing, but Vonnegut had told him: “You may be surprised. I think capitalism is going to treat you okay.”

After Iowa, he moved back east and taught at Windham College in Putney, Vermont (no longer in existence), and then at Mt. Holyoke College. Subsequently he went back to Iowa as a teacher from 1972 to 1975 where his students included: T. Coraghessan Boyle, Ron Hansen, Douglas Unger, Kent Haruf (rhymes with sheriff) and Susan Taylor Chehak.

Until Irving’s fourth novel — The World According to Garp — vaulted him into celebrity in 1978,  he usually had a full time job teaching creative writing or coaching wrestling. His meager income was supplemented with awards from the Rockefeller Foundation, a fellowship from the National Endowment for the Arts, and a Guggenheim Fellowship during the preceding 11 years.

Irving divorced his first wife after 18 years of marriage in 1982. Five years later he married his literary agent — a Toronto native, 12 years his younger. Irving says of the experience: “There are only two ways you can feel, I suppose, when you have a second marriage and start a second family. You either feel you are lucky to have had that chance or you feel you’re a damn fool to have made the same mistake again.” Irving’s habits are a bit different now, as he writes from 8 a.m. to 4 p.m., then works out in a gym that is part of his house where he has a wrestling floor mat. Afterward he usually prepares dinner, as he is the family’s sole chef.

Although he won an Academy Award in 2000 for the best adapted screenplay taken from his 1985 book The Cider House Rules, Irving says that he thinks “books are better.”

In 1984 came A son of the Circus, set in India and Toronto, and Mr. Irving’s only attempt at a mystery novel. Readers are treated to his usual vast array of characters. These include a well dressed, dignified Indian orthopedic surgeon researching the gene responsible for achondroplastic dwarfism, identical twins separated at birth (one an Indian film star, the other an American Jesuit), a child prostitute who may be HIV positive, a beggar boy whose foot has been crushed by an elephant, transvestites and transsexuals., and a drug filled dildo carried by an American hippie. It is here that I came across one of the simplest but most frightening lines of Irving’s fiction. The protagonist is alone in the bedroom of a prostitute. He hears the killer coming down the hall and he furtively seeks a place to hide, choosing a closet with only a curtain for a door. As the killer enters the room, Irving writes: “the only sound you can hear is the sound of someone trying not to make a sound.” Who amongst us, in childhood games of Kick the Can or Flashlight Tag, has not been in the same plight — trying desperately not to make a sound!

However, despite the bizarre and violent plot twists, Mr. Irving again explores some serious issues — especially the theme of perpetual exile. (The book is dedicated to Salman Rushdie.) The Indian orthopedist finds that he is not comfortable in his adopted home of Toronto where he is subject to racial abuse. Nor is he comfortable in his native India where he finds the country’s misery and chaos oppressive.

Irving also portrays the Indian circus as a social welfare institution where many performers are children who are sold by their parents as a way to see that they are cared for. His circus descriptions are reminiscent of the circus scenes of the highly acclaimed Canadian author, Robertson Davies, in his series of novels, The Deptford Trilogy. Irving has said that he does not believe in the mantra of many writing teachers — that an author must write about what he or she knows. This novel would seem to prove the point, as Mr. Irving has never been to India.

Irving says: “I’m not the guy to ask about American literature. I feel out of place in it, and have always been more at home in the British novel.” He admires 19th century authors such as: Dickens, Hardy, Trollope, Turgenev, Flaubert and Tolstoy. “I am a conscious imitator of those forms of the novel: narrative, large, full of plot and fate, and of characters who strive to be more than ordinary.” American influences make up a small portion of his list of favorites. He cites Melville, but especially Hawthorne and says: “I am not a Faulkner-Hemmingway-Fitzgerald person. Perhaps, in part, because I was forced to read that stuff in school when I was too young to appreciate it, and hated it. Vonnegut and Heller mean much more to me than Twain.”

Irving begins his memoir Trying to Save Piggy Sneed, with a disclaimer: that all memoirs are false. “A fiction writer’s memory is an especially imperfect provider of detail; we can always imagine a better detail than the one we can remember. The correct detail is rarely, exactly, what happened; the most truthful detail is what could have happened, or what should have. Being a writer is a strenuous marriage between careful observation and just as carefully imagining the truths you haven’t had the opportunity to see. The rest is the necessary, strict toiling with the language; for me this means writing and rewriting the sentences until they sound as spontaneous as good conversation.”

Irving says of his writing: “My instinct is to reach you emotionally, which includes wanting to make you laugh, but also wanting to move you, to make you cry, to hurt you. I’m not an intellectual, I’m a storyteller. And, as such, I’m a craftsman. I care very much about building characters to a point where you care deeply about them, and when you lose them, it’s like losing someone you knew.”

Irving, like Dickens, uses the backdrop of the societal ills of our time in which to display his novels. He creates distinctly unique and memorable characters. His themes have to do with how his characters handle loss or the effort to control some part of life that is, ultimately, random and uncontrollable. Perhaps his popularity arises because we see parts of ourselves mirrored in his fiction? We certainly are part of his landscape.

So Gentlemen, what are you reading?

Material for this essay was obtained from the New York Times Book Reviews, Phillips Exeter Academy Alumni Bulletins, Mr. Irving’s memoirs, and, of course, his wonderful novels.

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