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The novels of John Irving commonly melded darker shades of comedy, tragedy, infidelity and familial dysfunction, enacted by casts of fascinatingly eccentric misfits. His breakthrough, The World According to Garp (1978), came relatively early on, but Irving maintained its vibrant sales with later offerings like The Hotel New Hampshire (1981), The Cider House Rules (1985), and A Prayer for Owen Meany (1989) - many of which were made into successful feature films. Critical response was decidedly mixed on a number of his books, with the common complaint being that they were overly wordy and/or awkwardly structured. Regardless, readers gravitated in large numbers to Irving, savoring his unusual characters and storylines, and correspondingly offbeat humor. Irving stated that the things he read and imagined as a boy proved formative and were what led him to choose writing as his vocation. His subject matter was frequently provocative, with offbeat sexuality and the need for sexual tolerance being two themes that recurred in his work. Irving's female characters tended to be more resilient and gifted than often found in novels of similar subject and style, and the sport of wrestling, which played an important...
The novels of John Irving commonly melded darker shades of comedy, tragedy, infidelity and familial dysfunction, enacted by casts of fascinatingly eccentric misfits. His breakthrough, The World According to Garp (1978), came relatively early on, but Irving maintained its vibrant sales with later offerings like The Hotel New Hampshire (1981), The Cider House Rules (1985), and A Prayer for Owen Meany (1989) - many of which were made into successful feature films. Critical response was decidedly mixed on a number of his books, with the common complaint being that they were overly wordy and/or awkwardly structured. Regardless, readers gravitated in large numbers to Irving, savoring his unusual characters and storylines, and correspondingly offbeat humor. Irving stated that the things he read and imagined as a boy proved formative and were what led him to choose writing as his vocation. His subject matter was frequently provocative, with offbeat sexuality and the need for sexual tolerance being two themes that recurred in his work. Irving's female characters tended to be more resilient and gifted than often found in novels of similar subject and style, and the sport of wrestling, which played an important part in Irving's life for many years, also made regular appearances. With one of the longest lists of consecutive bestsellers for any author and more than 12 million books sold in 35 languages, Irving's importance in the history of American literature could not be underestimated.
John Winslow Irving was born John Wallace Blunt, Jr. in Exeter, NH on March 2, 1942. Irving was not a pen name adopted later in life, but an early change that occurred in childhood when his mother remarried. In addition to shedding the Blunt name after the separation, Irving's mother refused to allow her ex to spend time with their son, thus Irving did not get to know his biological dad. Although he eventually had a father figure, Irving also faced the challenge of growing up with dyslexia. Luckily, a reading of Charles Dickens' Great Expectations (1861) ignited in him a desire to write. That creative outlet proved to be the influential one, but wrestling also became a very important part of Irving's life. By his own account, Irving's childhood was mostly a happy one and he bonded so thoroughly with his stepfather, he rarely thought about the one who had left. However, at age 11, Irving was sexually molested by a woman in her twenties. He told few people of the incident, but later incorporated it into one of his books.
Once Irving finished at Phillips Exeter Academy prep school, he was a student for a time at the University of Pittsburgh. He soon transferred to the University of New Hampshire and also spent a year overseas with the Institute of European Studies, where he met his first wife, with whom he had two sons. After earning a MFA degree in creative writing from the University of Iowa, Irving wrote his first novel, Setting Free the Bears (1968), which evolved from his master's thesis he had submitted. Set in Austria, it concerned the lives of two friends who cook up an unorthodox plan to rescue the animals held captive in the Vienna Zoo. It was modestly successful, both critically and in terms of sales, but plans to adapt the book into a motion picture did not materialize.
During this period, Irving was an assistant professor in the English department at Windham College. He was later appointed Writer-in-Residence at the University of Iowa and also held another assistant professor position at Mount Holyoke College. Two more novels, The Water-Method Man (1972) and The 158 Pound Marriage (1974), followed, but it was The World According to Garp (1978) that proved to be his breakthrough work. It chronicled the life of a writer-wrestler and his gifted feminist mother in a narrative that delighted readers with its audacity and delightful array of unconventional supporting characters, including a former football player-turned-transgender woman. A considerable triumph, "Garp" was one of the most widely read and discussed books of its year and instantly catapulted Irving from well-reviewed author to major literary figure. By that stage in his life, Irving had spent much time wrestling on a competitive level and finally retired at the relatively advanced age of 34. In between his other pursuits, he then decided to offer his services as a coach and continued in that vein for an additional 13 years.
The story of another highly unusual family, The Hotel New Hampshire (1981) extended its own array of indelible oddballs and also proved to be a bestseller. Irving enjoyed a second honor that year when his short story "Interior Space" won an O. Henry Award. Director George Roy Hill and screenwriter Steve Tesich teamed up brilliantly to adapt "The World According to Garp" into a surprise 1982 hit film that received two Academy Award nominations. Even more importantly, it launched the movie career of its star, comedic actor and stand-up Robin Williams. Irving also took a small role in the film as a referee. The surprisingly solid box office brought much additional attention to Irving, who appeared on the cover of no less than TIME magazine. The love expressed for the new incarnation of "Garp" no doubt made a film edition of "The Hotel New Hampshire" seem like a viable project, but the resulting 1984 production, which starred Robe Lowe and Jodie Foster, fell short of the critical and financial heights reached by its predecessor.
The story of an abortion doctor and his apprentice, The Cider House Rules (1985) repeated the achievement of Irving's other recent works and that particular novel represented a key moment in his creative arc. From that point onward, he first conceived the final sentence and then constructed each book backward. The formula proved to be a consistently winning one and Irving stated in later years that he had never been forced to change any of those concluding lines. The author also began the screenplay for a cinematic edition of "The Cider House Rules," but it would be more than a decade before the film began shooting. Unfortunately, Irving's personal life had been less fruitful than his literary pursuits and he was divorced by that time. In 1987, he wed literary agent Shyla Leary, with whom he fathered a third son.
Opening with a female spectator being killed by a foul ball at a baseball game, A Prayer for Owen Meany (1989) offered much of what the public had come to expect from Irving, while also incorporating religious faith, spirituality and politics into what many considered to be one of his most satisfying and rewarding works. A bit less reminiscent of his previous output, A Son of the Circus (1994) was greeted by less enthusiastic notices, with the common complaint being that it was overly long and not sufficiently focused. Nonetheless, it still struck a chord and enjoyed healthy sales. A brief history of his writing and wrestling careers, The Imaginary Girlfriend (1995) represented Irving's first venture into the world of non-fiction and, as he repeatedly refused to consider penning a full-length memoir, it was the closest to an autobiography his fans would receive. Trying to Save Peggy Sneed (1996) featured six short stories and a pair of essays previously available via other sources, while A Prayer for Owen Meany made it to the big screen in the form of "Simon Birch" (1998), starring Ashley Judd and Ian Michael Smith. The production was based quite loosely on Irving's book, dropping much of the original plotting and utilizing a different ending. Business proved to be modest and Irving, not surprisingly, largely washed his hands of the picture.
Lasse Hallström's feature version of "The Cider House Rules" arrived in 1999, starring Michael Caine, Tobey Maguire and Charlize Theron. In contrast to "Simon Birch," Irving had considerable say in the project, which was a substantial critical success that also performed admirably for a film of its unique type, but due to the abortion topic, encountered its share of controversy as well. The adaptation was honored with two Academy Awards, including one for Irving, who appeared in the film as a stationmaster. He shared his experiences in My Movie Business (1999) and also published A Widow for One Year (1999), which centered on almost four decades in the lives of a family of writers. The Fourth Hand (2001) once again invoked the author's love of outrageous incidents - namely the reporter protagonist having his hand bitten off by a lion and the peculiar events that followed - and quirky characters, and though some felt that he was straining a bit too hard for wit for this particular outing, the majority of readers found that it possessed the strengths of his best offerings.
Taking a brief respite from his usual course, the illustrated children's book A Sound Like Someone Trying Not to Make a Sound (2004) presented Irving with a creative change of pace. A Widow for One Year was adapted into the film "The Door in the Floor" (2004), but like "Simon Birch," it attracted relatively little attention, proving that there were no guarantees when it came to adapting Irving's unique point of view to a visual medium. Described by Irving as a disturbing experience, the creation of Until I Find You (2005) coincided with the author's discovery that he had a previously unknown brother. This allowed Irving to learn more about his natural father, whose fate eerily echoed the one he had already conceived for the protagonist's dad in Until I Find You. The similarities prompted Irving to change the manuscript, which he had originally penned in the first person, into a more conventionally recounted story. While some decried its length, Last Night in Twisted River (2009) also had its defenders who believed that Irving managed to keep the plot fresh and consistently interesting, while revisiting themes and character types from earlier efforts. Described as his most political novel in more than a decade, In One Person (2012) was another of Irving's looks at sexual intolerance in its chronicle of the love that occurred between a transgender woman and a younger, bisexual man. There was speculation in the popular press that the book was inspired by Irving's youngest son, Everett, who came out as gay in 2009. However, those familiar with Irving's output recognized that such protagonists and subjects were hardly new to his work and applauded his ongoing interest in championing such people and topics.
By John Charles
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CAST: (feature film)
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