Magazine article The New Yorker

On the Mat

Magazine article The New Yorker

On the Mat

Article excerpt

ON THE MAT

Several heroes of John Irving's novels are members or aspiring members of the New York Athletic Club, the limestone colossus on Central Park South. They love the club's wrestling program and hate its dress code and sniffy protocols. A character from "In One Person" remarks, "That place is notoriously anti-everything . It's anti-Semitic , it's anti-black . . . . It's an Irish Catholic boys' club."

The protagonist of Irving's fourteenth and latest novel, "Avenue of Mysteries," a non-wrestling, pro-everything Mexican-American novelist named Juan Diego Guerrero, transects the club's gravitational field only briefly. He stops at a hotel on Central Park South, then achieves escape velocity and flies to the Philippines for the remainder of the book. Not so Irving himself, a lifetime N.Y.A.C. member. He greeted a recent visitor to the club in a black gabardine suit that had afforded him entry through the front door, rather than the rear, where casually dressed athletes slink in. "That's also where they bring in the food and take out the garbage," he said, darkly. A banty, broad-shouldered man with a companionable manner, Irving no longer keeps a locker at the N.Y.A.C., but during the eighties he hit the mats nearly every evening, from seven to nine. "One reason I still, at seventy-three, rave about the dress code is that I work all day in a T-shirt and sweatpants. I had to get all dressed up to come here--and then take off all my clothes and get changed to wrestle."

In the club's Tap Room, a Naugahyde shrine to the butter pat and the lemon wedge, Irving ordered a salmon salad. "All those years of wrestling made me, frankly, not very hungry," he said, "because I associate eating too much with gruelling self-punishment." At Phillips Exeter and the University of Pittsburgh, he often wore a rubber suit to braise his hundred-and-forty-five-pound frame. He was a textbook gym rat: "I wasn't the best of athletes, so I had to be tactical and technically proficient. My strategy was to maintain a defensive, hard-to-penetrate stance, be a counterpuncher. I was always disappointed that I wasn't a better wrestler than I was, because I loved it so."

Doesn't his boisterous fiction run counter to that approach? "With both wrestling and writing novels, you have to love the repetition, the drilling, the process of making what isn't natural become second nature," he said. …

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