John Irving | Critical Review by Andrew Rosenheim

This literature criticism consists of approximately 3 pages of analysis & critique of John Irving.
This section contains 708 words
(approx. 3 pages at 300 words per page)
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Critical Review by Andrew Rosenheim

SOURCE: "Catch-As-Catch-Can," in Times Literary Supplement, February 4, 1996, p. 9.

In the following review, Rosenheim offers a generally favorable assessment of The Imaginary Girlfriend.

Evelyn Waugh's Mr Pinfold maintained that "most men have the germs of one or two books only; all else is professional trickery". One of the appealing things about the popular American novelist John Irving is his unwillingness to use any tricks at all, or to pretend that the same themes do not recur in his work. Bears, motor cycles, Vienna and, most of all, the sport of wrestling figure prominently and repetitively in his novels, and this curious set of preoccupations has spawned the imaginative plots that are this writer's greatest strength.

The Imaginary Girlfriend is a memoir, atypically short for Irving, which details the major (really, with writing co-dominant) role which amateur wrestling has played in his life. He is quick to admit that wrestling holds little popular appeal, although the amateur sport in America bears no relation to its grotesque professional cousin. It is instead a highly disciplined but low-status sport, finding particular favour in the Midwestern states (Iowa, Nebraska), where the sheer harshness of the winters drives all sport inside.

Irving is, in fact, a New Englander of a privileged sort, who, being the son of a teacher at Phillips Exeter, was able to attend that prestigious boarding school. Yet he manages to portray himself consistently as an underdog, less wealthy than his classmates, academically struggling because of an undiagnosed (and then unknown) dyslexia. In wrestling he found a sport in which, though never talented, he could become competent through hard work, much as he suggests that his success as a writer has come from graft and compulsive rewriting rather than any intrinsic gift. In the light of his subsequent success, this modesty could well seem disingenuous, but the patent sincerity of his passion gives an appealing authenticity to this memoir, though his absorption in the technicalities of his wrestling career can be monotonous.

Far more interesting are the vignettes of the paternal figures and colourful colleagues Irving encountered in one of the few sports where money exercises no influence—and discipline and self-denial (making the weight involves the abstemiousness of a jockey) are all. Ted Seabrooke, Irving's coach at Exeter, was quick to spot his pupil's determination, and to explain that a lack of natural talent could be offset by hard work; "I began to take my lack of talent seriously," says Irving endearingly. Later, when Irving studied at the University of New Hampshire but coached at Exeter, he found Seabrooke joined by the more raffish character of Cliff Gallagher, who "was a little dangerous; he showed the Exeter boys a great number of holds that had been illegal for many years."

Alternating with these memories are shorter accounts of Irving's development as a writer. Spurred first by an encouraging teacher at Exeter, he ended up as a student at UNH, then attended the famed Iowa Writers Workshop. Here the characters encountered are more famous but less interestingly evoked. The late Thomas Williams (author of the wonderful novel The Hair of Harold Roux), Kurt Vonnegut and John Cheever all encouraged Irving, but their appearances in The Imaginary Girlfriend, along with a cameo by Robertson Davies, hold none of the resonance of his wrestling mentors. Or, indeed, of the taxi-driver who drove Irving and a teammate to West Point from Manhattan for a meet, then stayed to cheer them on and rifle the locker room of the participants' valuables.

The same lack of force accompanies Irving's account of his early struggles as a writer and the sources for his much-repeated themes. His year abroad in Vienna during his college days, for example, occupies only nine pages in the book; they are characterized chiefly by his lingering distaste for an Austrian anti-Semitism he and a Jewish friend found endemic. Bears play no role at all, nor motorcycles, and, except for one black-and-white still of his second wife and fleeting mentions of his first, women are nowhere to be found. Wrestling more than writing seems to be the protagonist's obvious first love, though it is a tribute to Irving's skill as a writer that a sport of such minority interest is made so compelling and alive.

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This section contains 708 words
(approx. 3 pages at 300 words per page)
Buy the Critical Review by Andrew Rosenheim
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