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.