John Irving on John Irving

Article excerpt

WHEN THEY DISCUSS the history of the novel, college English professors tend to divide practitioners into Richardson types and Fielding types, after the two great 18th-century fiction pioneers Samuel Richardson and Henry Fielding. Richardson's two-volume epistolary novel Pamela (1740) was the runaway bestseller of its day and spawned a new genre, the "novel of sensibility," that evolved into what is now called "psychological realism." Richardson's most notable heirs have included Jane Austen, Charlotte Bronte, Anthony Tro Hope, and Virginia Woolf. Fielding (who a year later penned Sitamela, a famous parody of his rival's masterpiece) specialized in big, expressionistic, often farcical tales that prioritized plot over individual psychology. With extravaganzas like Joseph Andrews (1742) and Tom Jones (1749) Fielding provided the model for works as various as Laurence Sterne's Tristram Shandy (1759-67), Charles Dickens' PickwickPapers (1837), W.M. Thackeray's Vanity Fair (1847-48), and, in our own time, the fiction of Thomas Pynchon, David Foster Wallace and Tom Wolfe.

John Irving too belongs squarely in the Fielding camp, as he demonstrates again in his new novel, Last Night in Twisted River (Random House, 554 pp., $28.00). Although I hesitate to call him an antirealist, he certainly does not let himself get hung up over psychological realism or character development. In interviews he has said that a reader cannot have any emotional connection to a book without believable characters, but he has also admitted that his own preoccupation is architectural structure: the forward action of the plot and the strategic use of symbols and motifs. This method has not always been a handicap. In his early and mid-career works, particularly The World Accordingto Garp(1978), The Hotel New Hampshire (1981), The Cider House Rules (1 985), and A Prayer for Owen Meany (1 989), he did create characters with enough individuality and emotional resonance to hook his readers. In recent years, however, Irving (like so many people as they approach old age) is becoming a bit of a self-parody In his previous book, Until I Find You (2005), and even more in his new one, the demands imposed by wildly overambitious plots have reduced the protagonists to mere dolls or dummies passively inserted into a relentless series of dubious events. They are objects rather than agents.

Irving has frequently been compared to Dickens, and it is true that Dickens overstuffed his plots in a similar manner, but he was too canny to let his leading characters descend into nonentities. Perhaps he went too far in the other direction by making them grotesques; yet (except for a few insipid females) they were never in danger of being bland or forgettable. In fact, Micawber, Quilp, Fagin, Sydney Carton, Uriah Heep, Sam Weiler - the list goes on and on and on - remain in our memory long after the plots of their stories have drifted out of our consciousness. This is not true of Irving's creations. In Last Night in Twisted River two ofhis three main characters - Daniel Baciagalupo, the author's surrogate, and Daniel's father, Dominic - are fatally colorless.

The third, a logger named Ketchum who is a friend of the Baciagalupos, is different: A rough old outdoorsman with a heart of gold, he is Dickensian in both eccentricity and the extent to which the author milks him for sentimentality. That's OK; sentimentality, despite the shudders of Dickens-haters, is realty not the deadly sin they make it out to be, and Irving is not afraid to slather it on. Ketchum is a little too much to take for the first half of the book, but after a while one grows fond of him - possibly because there is no other character with enough personality, even of the two-dimensional variety, to attach oneself to.

WITHOUT giving away anything , it can be revealed that Last Night in Twisted River is an autobiographical Bildungsroman, though it does not start out that way. Daniel Baciagalupo, 12 years old in 1954 (like Irving, he was born in 1942), is the son of a cook at a rough logging camp in northern New Hampshire. …