John Irving at 67: Great hair! Trim, handsome, clear-eyed, stentorian! What else?
To find out, Irving fans know, one must read the latest Irving novel - his 12th - which, like all of them, appears fantastic, but reliably transmits the latest news on the engrossing business of being John Irving.
Much will be revealed Sunday evening, Oct. 25, in Toronto when Irving reads from his new novel, Last Night in Twisted River, at the International Festival of Authors. When it comes to dramatizing his own writing, IFOA director Geoffrey Taylor notes, "John Irving could put actors out of work."
The novel opens with a gritty drama set in a northern New Hampshire logging camp 55 years ago, during one of the last of the river drives before trucks and roads tamed the business. The camp at Twisted River is a temporary place populated by rough and wild characters living perilously on the edge of everything. It is a place of rampaging bears, mystical Indians and long knives.
But Last Night in Twisted River soon turns out to be about a middle-aged novelist mourning the death of his only son while, among other things, doing such Irvingish things as eating well at a recognizable midtown Toronto restaurant, studying with Kurt Vonnegut at the Iowa Writers' Workshop, and figuring out how to insulate a Georgian Bay cottage sufficiently to permit mid-winter writing excursions.
The Yonge Street restaurant he calls Kiss of the Wolf in the novel is actually Pastis Express, Irving volunteers, its ultrasuave owner a faithful portrait of his "good friend," Pastis proprietor Georges Gurnon. Irving's son Everett took the photo of the symbolically bent white pine that appears on the cover of the book - showing a view both Irving and his novelist hero, Daniel Baciagalupo, share on the same rocky Pointe au Baril island. As he tells Baciagalupo in the book, Vonnegut really did tell Irving that capitalism might be good to him.
And so it went. Capitalism was very good to both.
On the other hand, Irving insists he shares none of his bestselling hero's contempt, which grows from mild to scathing as the story progresses, for dim-witted journalists who insist on knowing whether or not his apparently autobiographical novels are "really true."
"That's just a bit of self-referential fooling around," he says. "Don't hold back."
Okay: Is Last Night at Twisted River a true story?
"The element of what makes Daniel Baciagalupo, the writer, is very faithfully modelled on me," he answers easily. He says he feels closer to this one than either of the other two writers who have previously served him as protagonists, especially T.S. Garp, the one who made his reputation. "And those things in his life that have compelled him to live more in his imagination than his life - I think those things are very self-referential."
One's obsessions as a writer - those things that recur but are unplanned - they just insist upon themselves John Irving
That much is the same, and so are many other details, including the two writers' birthdates, education and friends. Unlike the fictional writer, who ends up alone in Toronto in static exile, Irving now lives in Vermont with his Canadian wife and their son, close to his other two children and four grandchildren.
But the truly made-up part of Daniel Baciagalupo's story - a steady series of devastating personal losses in a life spent on the run from a crazed killer - also fell close to hand. What happens to his hero is "my worst nightmare," Irving says.
On that matter, Wikipedia provides a convenient chart plotting Irving novels on one axis against such "recurring themes" as "severing of body parts," "bears" and "deadly accidents" on the other. Check, check, check for Last Night in Twisted River.
That's not all, the author adds, joining the dissection of his own obsessions with the clinical interest of a detached observer. "The character of this big Amazonian woman who drops from the sky," he says. "She's so familiar to me from other novels. She was Emma in Until I Find You, she was Hester in Owen Meany, and she was Melanie in The Cider House Rules."
In Twisted River, her name is Lady Sky and she drops from the sky naked with a parachute, landing in a pigpen. True to form, she is large and vulgar and serves to rescue Irving's typically small, timid hero.
"I never knew anyone like that," he says, "but I think it is meaningfully autobiographical to say that by her recurrence I must have wished I had." When he realized his hero's only son had to die, Irving admits, "Part of me said, 'Oh, that story again - not again.'"
Let's say a writer spends his career fleeing from novel to novel, pursued by a demanding horde of familiar characters with painfully unresolved "issues." Is there any escape?
"There is often an illusion that because my novels are so purposely plotted before I begin writing them that I am in control of them," Irving declaims in response, describing how he begins every new novel by writing a final sentence and then making "a kind of road map in reverse until I find the place where a novel should begin."
"It's easy to think you choose a new story every time and you are in complete control of everything that happens," he says. But such control is tenuous, "because one's obsessions as a writer - those things that recur but are unplanned - they just insist upon themselves."
Irving says he has never written a novel as fast as the 560-page Twisted River, which took him three years to finish. But none of his books took longer to gestate. "This novel has been in my mind longer than any novel I've written - 20 years," he says. "Yet the ending eluded me for a long time."
Other endings to earlier novels came before it. Irving couldn't come to grips with the unexpected tone of elation he detected in his thoroughly put-upon hero's closing comment on the story of his unhappy life. "I thought, 'What possible euphoria can Danny feel when he's lost everyone who mattered to him in his life?'" Irving asks. "What's he so excited about?"
Then it came to him in a flash. "It was so simple when I finally did see it," he says. Irving wrote: "He felt that the great adventure of his life was just beginning - as his father must have felt, in the throes and dire circumstances of his last night in Twisted River."
Why make the sad writer so happy? It was because, Irving realized after 20 years' thought, he had just decided to sit down and write the very tragic, fate-filled novel that, in the "real" writer's hands, becomes the novel in hand - a novel about a novelist finding redemption in the tortuous process of writing what he knows: his life.
"The great adventure is starting again," Irving says. "For a writer, it always is."
John Irving reads and is interviewed Sun., Oct. 25, at 5 p.m. at Toronto's International Festival of Authors, in Harbourfront Centre's Fleck Dance Theatre (www.readings.org).
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