John Irving’s God-Haunted Fiction
Seven years have passed since the publication of his last novel, and five years since he announced that he was on track to complete his next opus, then titled Darkness like a bride. Apart from a surprise appearance as a book review in the New York Times in August, John Irving has been keeping his fans waiting for quite a while. But it’s finally (almost) here: in less than a month, John Irving will publish The last chairlift.
The new novel, his 15th, promises to feature a family as eccentric as any in Irving’s corpus. An unexpected pregnancy, a fatherless son, the full gamut of sexual expression, ghosts and avatars and – we can only assume, since this is John Irving – wrestling, infidelity and bears.
John Irving: “I’ve always been interested in the power of belief and what people believed in, without feeling like I looked much like a believer myself.”
Irving suddenly turns 80, a bit of a shock considering he’s always looked quite young. (How can John Irving be 80? I’m 22.) His early novels, including free the bears (1968) and The water method man (1972) received critical acclaim, but with modest commercial success. It was only after his fourth novel, The world according to Garp (1978), that Irving has become an international phenomenon – compared to Charles Dickens (one of his favorite authors), featured on the cover of Time and honored with the National Book Award for Fiction in 1980. A popular film adaptation of garp featuring Robin Williams, Glenn Close and John Lithgow also introduced Irving to new audiences.
garp is a sprawling novel over 600 pages, but quite readable; when i first picked it up (at the real age of 22) i couldn’t put it down except to cry at the else Irving moments when an act of bravery or ardor or violence forcefully and dramatically changed the lives of his characters in an abrupt way.
The following years brought The New Hampshire Hotel, the rules of the cider house (more on that in a minute), A prayer for Owen Meany, a son of the circus and five others. The novels became increasingly autobiographical in many ways, and some would have benefited from a diet: The last chairlift is perhaps his heaviest tome at 912 pages.
John Irving: “It’s not enough that they have their beliefs and allow you to have yours. They have to get you on board. Pot smokers are a lot like that too.”
America did not pay much attention to The world according to Garp upon its release, although both The New Hampshire Hotel and A son of the circus were reviewed in subsequent years. Richard A. Blake, SJ, longtime editor at America, did not care about the former. “After the blazing publicity fades and the laughter and energy die down, The New Hampshire Hotel leaves a bitter aftertaste,” Blake wrote in a 1981 review, “The world according to Irving is a dark and insensitive place, a hotel or rather a series of hotels, where individuals come and go without ever caring about who is in the next room.”
I interviewed Irving for America in December 2017 in Toronto, where he was writing drafts of what would become The last chairlift by hand on yellow notepads. Irving’s most recent novel at the time, 2015 Alley of Mysteries, had featured a protagonist named Juan Diego whose sister received visions of the Virgin Mary. Throughout the novel (much of it takes place in Mexico), statues mourn and the supernatural repeatedly intrudes on reality. Other characters included a Jesuit scholastic and a slum priest. Irving also quoted (as he did in several of his novels) Graham Greene: “There is always a moment in childhood when the door opens and lets in the future.”
Was there something of a Catholic sensibility to his writing, I wondered? Yes and no. “What I wanted to do in this novel was to make the miraculous very real, while the institution of the church itself is harshly criticized,” Irving told me. “It is impossible to spend even as much time as I spent in Mexico and in these basilicas, these cathedrals, these churches, in the presence of these different virgins, and the many people you see on their knees asking them something – c t is impossible not to feel the strength of faith in these virgins that so many people have.
John Irving: “What I wanted to do in [Avenue of Mysteries] was to make the miraculous real, while the institution of the church itself is severely criticized.”
At the same time, Irving has long been a strong supporter of legal abortion, a major theme in The rules of the cider house, and is vociferous in its criticism of the Catholic Church for its opposition to abortion. Although he found Pope Francis to be a welcome change from previous popes, “I remain skeptical when [Pope Francis] said he believes that we, the church at large, have overemphasized the issue of same-sex marriage and the issue of abortion rights – of which so many, as he admits, good practicing Catholics are of liberal side.
“Perhaps one day, if not in my lifetime or yours, some relaxation on the issue of same-sex marriage seems more likely to me than any relaxation on the issue of abortion. Which, in particular in Third World countries places so many poor and disadvantaged women in a minority and enslaved role,” he continued. “I wouldn’t want to be born a girl in a Third World economy where the Catholic Church is at the orders.”
At the same time, it’s clear that faith (or lack thereof) plays an important role in Irving’s fiction, even though his characters and plots almost always serve to resist or complicate the role of organized religion. Irving, who was raised in the congregation but does not belong to any organized religious denomination, writes characters who, like Flannery O’Connor’s American South, seem somehow haunted by God.
“At school and university, I took all the university courses in religion and the history of religions. Because I was always interested in the power of belief and what people believed in, without feeling like I looked much like a believer myself,” Irving said. “Similarly, I would say that I am often as resistant to trusting atheists as I am to true believers.”
“I find that the most outspoken atheists and true believers also have in common a desire to bring you into their fold. It’s not enough that they have their beliefs and allow you to have yours. It They gotta get you in. Pot smokers are a lot like that too.
In a review of A prayer for Owen Meany for The Washington Post in 1989, Stephen King put it another way. Irving, he said, “writes novels in the unglamorous but effective way that Babe Ruth used to hit home…He doesn’t dance, duck, dodge or spin not around the burning bush; he simply approaches the subject of the deity and kicks it sharply, hip and thigh.
Stephen King on John Irving: “He doesn’t dance, stoop, duck, or beat around the burning bush; he just walks up to the subject of the deity and strikes it briskly, hip and thigh.”
Our selection of poetry for this week is the winner of the Foley Poetry Competition 2022: “In Copenhagen”, by Lisa Mullenneaux. Readers can see all America‘s poems published here.
In this space each week, America features literary reviews and commentary on a particular writer or group of writers (new and old; our archive spans over a century), as well as poetry and other offerings from America Media. We hope this gives us the opportunity to provide you with more in-depth coverage of our literary offerings. It also allows us to alert digital subscribers to some of our online content that does not appear in our newsletters.
Other sections of the Catholic Book Club:
Theophilus Lewis brought the Harlem Renaissance to the pages of America
William Lynch, America’s Greatest Jesuit You’ve Probably Never Heard Of
The Catholic Faith (and Pessimism) of JRR Tolkien
Curé, sociologist, novelist: the many imaginations of Father Andrew Greeley
Leonard Feeney, Americathe only excommunicated literary publisher (to date)
Joan Didion: a chronicler of the horrors and consolations of modern life
James T. Keane