Over the past 50 years, no American literary lion has roared as mightily across the
planet as the novelist John Irving
, the indefatigable author of fourteen novels, ten of which
have been international bestsellers.
The 76-year-old Irving has been widely celebrated, both here and abroad, as a master
storyteller and comic genius, and praised resoundingly for his intrepid and fearless engagement
with controversial subject matter, and for the depth of his empathetic humanity, both as an artist
and as a person. Translated into more than 35 languages, Irving’s narcotically-addictive fictions
have made him a household name in dozens of nations, and earned him the rare status of an
acclaimed literary writer who has simultaneously achieved stratospheric popular commercial
success. It can also be said with some certainty that John Irving is the only Literary Lion in
history to be both inducted into the Wrestling Hall of Fame and presented with an Oscar for
Born in 1942 in Exeter, New Hampshire, Irving’s early wanderlust landed him in Vienna,
Austria, at age 21, a decision which prevented Irving from ever being pigeon-holed as a Yankee
regionalist. Beginning in 1968 with Setting Free The Bears, published a year after Irving had
earned an MFA from the Iowa Writers Workshop, Austria played a pivotal role is his first five
novels. Although New England would serve as the focus of many of the author’s narratives, in
later work as well Irving proved to be an enthusiastic globe-trotter, always expanding the playing
field for his art and enhancing his universal appeal.
Irving, a famous contrarian, claims to disdain the label “Great American Novel,” and
guffaws at any suggestion that such a thing might exist, yet he himself has written three works
critically considered to be worthy of just such an appraisal.
The World According To Garp (1979) received a National Book Award and was a finalist
for the Pulitzer Prize. Garp was not only a publishing blockbuster but a cultural phenomenon
that skyrocketed Irving to a zone of celebrityhood never experienced by most authors. What
enthralled audiences and critics alike, besides a riveting story-line, were Irving’s fascinating
community of characters, who made the exotic (transgenderism, dwarfism) familiar, and the
familiar uncomfortably and often tragically flawed. It was in Garp that Irving’s artistic
prescience had a powerful impact on our culture, and all cultures. One could read Irving to get a
sense of what the future would bring us–in 1979, his understanding that sexuality and its various
evolutions, blendings and blurrings would become a central social, moral and political issue of
our time, and a stage upon which all open-hearted people would struggle for social justice.
Again, in The Cider House Rules (1985), Irving’s audiences would not escape one of our
nation’s most volatile political and theological conflicts–abortion, and a woman’s right to her
own body. The thematic stakes at the core of Cider House encircled readers with the fog of
paralyzing ambiguities that bedevil human existence, the clash of profound truths that bewilder
us with cosmic irony.
Audiences worldwide would vote A Prayer for Owen Meany to the top of the list of
Irving’s work as a true American classic. All the trademark Irving themes are radioactively
present here from the minute a young boy hits a baseball into the stands and kills his best
friend’s mother–random violence, absent parents, the nature of families and friendship, the
dynamo of sexuality, the UnderToad–in this case the Vietnam War–lurking in the background to
swallow our dreams. Here, too, we discover Irving’s passion for exploring the complexities of
religion and Christianity, not a territory where many writers dare to venture.
John Irving wants to be known as a world-class entertainer, and he is. He also wouldn’t
mind if we think of him as our own generation’s version of Charles Dickens, and we do. But
what makes Irving such a beloved author around the world is that, against the violence he finds
sweeping down on us, he provides the counterweight of gentle affection between people,
merciful and sincere and indeed heart-breaking in its frequent futility. And against desperation
and bigotry and hatred, we find in Irving, always when we least expect it, a brave hand,
extended. When all the accounting is done, he will be remembered as one of the most generous
writers of the human spirit.
author of The Woman Who Lost Her Soul
2014 Recipient of the Dayton Literary Peace Award for Fiction