John Irving | Critical Review by Robert Towers

This literature criticism consists of approximately 5 pages of analysis & critique of John Irving.
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Critical Review by Robert Towers

SOURCE: "Dr. Daruwalla and the Dwarfs," in The New York Times Book Review, September 4, 1994, pp. 1, 22.

In the following review, Towers offers praise for A Son of the Circus.

A dozen or so years ago, the newly revived Vanity Fair ran a color photograph of John Irving in his wrestler's outfit that seemed to reveal more about his fiction than about the wrestler himself. A bold frontal stance, a (mostly) good-natured aggressiveness, muscularity, an inclination to show off, to take risks—these are qualities we have come to anticipate in Mr. Irving's novels since The World According to Garp first hurtled him to fame. Like Dickens, to whom he has often been too facilely compared, he is a "big" novelist, unafraid of extravagant plots, of grotesque or freakish characters, of sensationalism, of sentimentality. He is also, as his 1989 novel, A Prayer for Owen Meany, demonstrated, willing to confront religious experience, to indulge in hints of the miraculous. In one respect his new book is his boldest yet: it is set almost entirely in India, where Mr. Irving (as he tells us in an author's note) has spent less than a month, and its principal character is an Indian, albeit a deracinated one.

Though the author is careful to claim that A Son of the Circus is not a novel "about" India, a country that "remains obdurately foreign" to him, the sights and sounds and smells of Bombay, its topology and folkways, its slums, clubs and circuses, its beggars and prostitutes, are teemingly present on nearly every page. With the help of Indian friends, Mr. Irving has clearly taken considerable pains to get the details right, and, as a quick journalistic overview, his picture is (judging from my own now-distant experience of the country) sufficiently convincing.

The figure—at once a character and a guide—through whose sensibility the reader experiences most of the novel's multitudinous events is well chosen for the purpose. A Westernized, English-speaking Parsi (rather than a Hindu or Muslim), Farrokh Daruwalla is an orthopedic surgeon who is married to an Austrian and spends most of his time in Toronto. Though a Canadian citizen and an Anglican convert, Dr. Daruwalla feels compelled to return to his native Bombay every four or five years to work at the Hospital for Crippled Children, to indulge his passion for circuses and to take blood samples from the dwarfs who make up the majority of circus clowns in India. By the last activity, he hopes to find a genetic marker for achondroplasia, the defect that causes the clowns' dwarfism. Dr. Daruwalla is presented as a kindly and decent man, a little naïve: "Because his medical practice was an exercise of almost pure goodness, he was ill prepared for the real world. Mostly he saw malformations and deformities and injuries to children; he tried to restore their little joints to their intended perfection. The real world had no purpose as clear as that."

Despite the novel's exotic coloration, the author's many admirers will soon enough feel at home in the world according to John Irving—a world populated not only by dwarfs but also by identical twins separated at birth (one a pseudo-Indian film star, the other an American Jesuit), by transvestite eunuchs (hijras), simple transvestites (zenanas) and "complete" transsexuals. A lascivious child prostitute who may be H.I.V. positive and a beggar boy whose foot has been crushed by an elephant are there to distress us while simultaneously giving our heart-strings a good tug. Complications are piled upon complications. In addition to being a surgeon, a circus fan and a researcher into dwarfism, Dr. Daruwalla is also a secret writer of film scripts that feature a detective known as Inspector Dhar, a sneering, handsome character played by the twin whom the doctor has unofficially adopted. Since Inspector Dhar is hated by Indian men and adored by Indian women, the prospective reader can easily imagine the possibilities for comedy or catastrophe that occur when the other twin—who is unaware of his brother's existence—arrives from America to teach at a Jesuit mission school.

There are, I would guess, perhaps a dozen subplots (some of them embryonic) in A Son of the Circus. One, set 20 years before the present action (but subsequently linked to it), involves an American hippie who, after the murder of her drug-dealing German lover, finds herself in possession of an enormous hollow dildo filled with Deutsche marks. There is, however, a main plot, which, though often out of sight, serves as a kind of spine for this novel of multiple concerns. It centers on the attempt to discover and then to trap the murderer of an elderly Indian golfer at the Duckworth Sports Club—a murderer who may also be the serial killer of so-called "cage-girl" prostitutes, who are exhibited in enclosures along the alleyways in Bombay's extensive red-light district. (The bellies of the prostitutes have all been embellished with the ink-drawn cartoon of an elephant's head, one of whose eyes is the victim's navel.)

Dr. Daruwalla is a major participant in this quest, for he had, 20 years earlier, seen such a cartoon on the corpse of a murdered girl and has used the motif in a recent film, "Inspector Dhar and the Cage-Girl Killer," that appears to have provoked a new round of killings. The chief suspect is soon revealed to be a member of the highly respectable Duckworth Club, a married woman of a certain age referred to as "the second Mrs. Dogar." Is it possible that she is none other than a transsexual once known to the doctor as a beautiful but vicious youth called Rahul? The entrapment, in which a real Indian police inspector and his neurotic American wife (formerly the dildo-carrying hippie) play a significant part, entails an elaborate scheme whose intricacies and improbabilities are amusing to follow.

As his readers have come to expect, Mr. Irving in addition to his affinity for freaks and misfits and his penchant for bizarre, violent and farcical incident, has serious themes to explore—or at least to toy with. In A Son of the Circus, which is dedicated to Salman Rushdie, the theme of exile—the state of being a perpetual immigrant—is repeatedly sounded in the case of Dr. Daruwalla, who is at home neither in Toronto, where he is subject to racist abuse, nor in India, where he feels overwhelmed by the country's misery and chaos. Questions of gender and homosexuality—is the latter genetically determined or simply a "life style" choice?—also figure prominently in the novel; both of the identical twins are revealed to be gay, as are two of Dr. Daruwalla's medical colleagues in Canada. The distinctions between real and spurious religious experience are brought into play in connection with Dr. Daruwalla and the Jesuit missionary; even the old paradoxes of free will and predestination are once again rehearsed.

The trouble with these thematic excursions is that they tend to be superficial, insufficiently grounded in the characters and inadequately dramatized in the novel's action. I found them a little boring, interruptions rather than enhancements of my pleasure in the lively progression of events. More seriously, the characters themselves, while often striking in their conception, do not really cohere. As we have seen, Farrokh Daruwalla, the protagonist, is presented as an exile not only in Toronto and Bombay but also in the world itself—an interesting idea. The problem is that the doctor, meant to be both the embodiment of goodness and the eternal immigrant, remains little more than a collection of externally presented attributes. Though we are often made party to his thoughts, no real inwardness is achieved. We never learn why he moved to Canada in the first place. Nor does his curious conversion (the result of what he interprets as a miraculously bitten toe!) seem in the least congruent with what else we are told about him. Similarly, Rahul, as the countervailing embodiment of pure evil, remains a symbolic monster, chillingly sinister but never for a moment human.

While Mr. Irving's approach can lead to prose that is annoyingly perfunctory, even glib, it has its advantages too: the narrative pace never bogs down for long. The reader is swept along by a torrent of vigorously dramatized incidents, jostled by a crowd of instantly (if momentarily) vivid characters. Though seldom memorable or particularly quotable, the language has an energy that keeps pace with the fecundity of invention. The exuberance—and sheer nerve—of John Irving's Indian tour de force goes a long way toward compensating for whatever fictional weaknesses the critical reader is likely to perceive. All things considered, I found it his most entertaining novel since Garp.

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This section contains 1,431 words
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