A John Irving Roundup: Taking Stock of the Best-selling Author’s Novels

I remember that I was sitting at the shared Internet station at the offices of Hawkeye Racing News, where I was, to my never-ending surprise, the editor of the mostly weekly newspaper about dirt-track racing, when our top-notch action photographer and photo editor Lance came over to ask me a question. His question had nothing to do with turning left on a quarter-mile oval of dirt.

“Does John Irving count as literature?” he asked me.

Lance knew I was an avid reader and that my taste ran toward the literary. For his part, Lance was a big fan of Mr. Irving—graduate of the University of Iowa’s Writers’ Workshop and author of a number of bestsellers—and he was interested in my take on the quality of the author’s work.

I didn’t have an opinion. I’d never cracked open a book by John Irving. Lance’s query changed that in a hurry. I soon had a very positive opinion, indeed.

I found myself thinking about that exchange as I stood in Murphy-Brookfield Books in Iowa City trying to decide which Irving novel to purchase so that I would have something for him to sign at his March 12 reading on the UI campus.

You could make a case that I hardly needed to pick up a book at the delightful used bookstore. In my office, I have an old paperback of Setting Free the Bears, Irving’s first novel and one of the few I haven’t read. I also have a nice hardbound copy of My Movie Business, his non-fiction account of his various Hollywood-related travails. At home, I have a terribly beat-up copy of Garp, a copy or two of The Hotel New Hampshire (which I also haven’t read, but which I remember Lance telling me offended “even” him), and a lovely trade paperback copy of Trying to Save Piggy Sneed. I’ve reviewed (and so still may own) the disappointing The Fourth Hand. I may have a few others hiding in my unruly stacks, as well.

What I don’t have, however, is a copy of any of my favorite Irving novels: The Cider House Rules, A Prayer for Owen Meany, A Son of the Circus, and A Widow for One Year. Those four novels come in succession in the middle of Irving’s career in the years from 1985 to 1998 (with the Piggy Sneed collection splitting them in 1993), and to me represent the “sweet spot” of Irving’s work.

These books, it seems to me, best capture Irving’s various recurring themes and represent the best of his craft (though I won’t argue if you want to throw Garp, published in 1978, into the mix here—most folks certainly would).

So why no copies in my collection? Because I listened to unabridged recorded versions of three of the books, all of which I checked out, just as I did a hard copy of Owen Meany (which doesn’t easily lend itself to a recorded version for reasons that need not be revealed here), from the library.

Goaded by Lance’s question, my Irving reading began with A Son of the Circus, which happened to be the only book by the author available in a recorded format on the day I first went to look at the Cedar Rapids Public Library. I’ve noticed that most Irving fans crinkle their noses a bit when they learn that I jumped into the Irving oeuvre with this particular title. It doesn’t seem to make too many other folks’ lists of favorite Irving books.

But I remember being enchanted by Irving’s style and substance from the very beginning of the quite lengthy novel. I remember being particularly struck by Irving’s deft and sympathetic portrayal of a man who believes he has experienced a miracle.

And so, in the end, I left Murphy-Brookfield with a trade paperback edition of A Son of the Circus that features the same image of an elephant I remember being on the cover of the recorded version. As I write this ahead of the reading itself, I am imagining that most attendees will come armed with Garp or Owen Meany or The Cider House Rules (which, admittedly, may be my very favorite of Irving’s novels), but I’ll happily ask him to sign my new-to-me copy of Circus.

Its presence on my shelf will always remind me of Lance’s question and the discovery of a new author to love. That, in turn, will always make me smile.