Saturday, July 23, 2005

John Irving, Untouchable?

I know people who are unshakeable John Irving fanatics. I sort of understand where they're coming from. I've heard him interviewed several times; he's always forthright and well-spoken. I liked what I heard, so I read A Prayer For Owen Meany. I loved it.

Then I read a few more Irving offerings. With every new title, my opinion of his prosaic choices soured.

Finally, I was given a galley proof of A Widow For One Year. I'm a sucker for novels about novelists, and this whopper offered me an intertwined narrative that followed the lives of four novelists. I got started. The first 100 pages were irredeemably boring, but Irving's prose is easily digested, so I stuck with it. Scenes that should have been funny, or cringe-inducing, were simply long and drawn-out, leeching the material of tension and interest. The characters swung from gormless horn-dogs, to cunningly cruel schemers, to witlessly cruel sadists.

I would get completely pissed-off with Widow, then Irving would lure me on further with the Lifestyles of the Rich & Literary. Only to piss me off again. The only character I had any sympathy for was a detective, who lost me when he married one of the writers. I seethed. I seeth still.

Worse, Canada's The Globe & Mail is among the literary reviewers to continually give this guy a "Get Out Of Jail, Collect $200" card, every single time! They assigned Carol Shields to Widow, which spelled immediate trouble: the woman, a marvelous encourager of talent on every tier, was unfailingly kind in her appraisal. Today we have Robert J. Wiersema gushing, "Until I Find You, the long-awaited new novel from Irving, is perhaps his finest book. The novel stands on its own as powerfully intimate, epic storytelling, but serves also as a summation, and a re-evaluation, of Irving's canon." A generous re-evaluation, I'd assume.

I'm not especially prone to conspiracy theorizing - until it comes to book reviews. The book biz is not at all disimilar to the movie biz: the players struggle to make the scene, then glad-hand and crow-for-pay to stay there. So the paperback of UIFY will wear "HIS FINEST BOOK - THE GLOBE & MAIL", roughly around the time Mr. Wiersema's forthcoming novel Before I Wake makes its appearance. Be sure to check Wiersema's cover for Irving's impramatur.

I bear no malice to either Wiersema or Irving, but I'm getting a bit peeved with The Globe. Click Metacritic, and you'll see why. UIFY scores 41% approval - "mixed or average." Scroll down. A friend in the biz has said to me that nobody bats 1.000, but that Kirkus Reviews comes pretty close. The Kirkus prognosis: "Is this Irving's worst novel? No doubt about it."

Readers can take that to the bank.


Bottle Rocket Fire Alarm said...

I just finished it last night. The reviews were right.

Irving sunk to telling instead of showing, and in many portions of the book, it reads like a chronology list. Irving was trying to give the reader a complete, unbroken view of Burns' life from childhood to his mid-thrities, but in many passages, particularly his rise to success as an actor, he zooms past since he had little add.

The first two sections, Jack's childhood, are very good. So is the ending in which he finds his father. The 400 pages in between are painfully boring in many places.

Whisky Prajer said...

400 pages - oof! Thanks for sparing me the effort, BRFA!