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Life into Art: Novelist John Irving

29 minute read
R.Z. Sheppard


Garp Creator John Irving strikes again The pieces of the dream machine are in place. Scaffolding has been erected against a brick building for a shot involving a small boy who nearly falls off a roof. At the edge of a vast lawn, a fake rock wall and Styrofoam cannon mark the location of the sex scene. The trucks that moved the cameras, props and coils of electrical spaghetti have been converted into Teamster poker parlors. For the hot, thirsty crew that has assembled jv this summer on the bosky Georgian campus of the Millbrook School near Poughkeepsie, N.Y., it is another wrap in the filming of The World According to Garp. But for John Irving, au thor of the 1978 bestseller, and for Robin Williams, the movie’s star, the working day has two sweaty hours to go.

Irving, 39, a former collegiate and A.A.U. wrestler, has been hired by Director George Roy Hill (Butch Cassidy and the Sundance Kid) to coach Williams for Garp’s match at Steering School, the fictional New England prep school of the novel. Accompanied by Sons Colin, 16, and Brendan, 11, Irving arrives at the Millbrook gym dressed to grapple: red singlet, kneepads and ear guards that resemble perforated saucers. In preparation for his role as the epical Wrestler-Writer T.S. Garp, “Mork” Williams has selected a modified outer-space look: a shiny blue and green workout suit that encases him from neck to ankles.

Good habits are worth being fanatical about.

—Setting Free the Bears

Williams has his work cut out for him. This is no cheeky celebrity-jock special for weekend TV. His mentor is the most successful “serious” young writer in America. Few novelists are rewarded financially as well as critically. Fewer still make cultural waves. In the ’50s J.D. Salinger produced Catcher in the Rye, the Huckleberry Finn for the Silent Generation. Readers in the ’60s and early ’70s rallied around Kurt Vonnegut’s Cat’s Cradle, with its “karass,” and the casually philosophical “So it goes,” from Slaughterhouse-Five. The end of the decade be longed to Irving and Garpomania: a choice of paperback in six delicious cover colors and T shirts reading I BELIEVE IN GARP and BEWARE OF THE UNDERTOAD—a phrase that Irving attributes to Son Brendan, who once misunderstood a warning about swimming in the ocean.

There is also Irving the physical phenomenon. He has dark, heartthrob good looks. Though he seems slight—he is 5 ft. 8 in. tall and 155 lbs.—his bulk is imposingly carried in a wedge from shoulders to waist. Not since Hemingway has a well-known American writer worked as hard on his body as he has on his prose. Rarely a day goes by when a bout at the typewriter is not followed by a roll on the mat with his sons, a three-to six-mile run or a session bench-pressing weights until he tires. “I do not lift for bulk or definition,” he notes, “but for stamina.”

He needs it. His activities on the film expanded voluntarily from coaching to advising Scriptwriter Steve Tesich (Breaking Away) how to make Williams a convincing literary hero. Irving also appears briefly in the movie as the referee peering intently into knots of arms and legs. In addition, he is currently finishing two weeks of teaching and readings at the Bread Loaf Writers’ Conference in Middlebury, Vt., appearing with such admired colleagues as Stanley Elkin and John Gardner. After that he goes on to New York to participate in the editing of Garp footage. He is also working on a short novel based on Ivan Turgenev’s First Love. Irving came under the influence of the Russian masters at New Hampshire’s Phillips Exeter Academy, where his step father Colin Irving introduced Russian studies to the curriculum.

All this is mere preliminary to the season’s main event, the Sept. 30 publication of The Hotel New Hampshire (E.P. Button; $15.50), Irving’s fifth novel. Though the first edition numbers 175,000 copies, Button has already ordered a second printing of 100,000. Pocket Books, which sold more than 3 million paperback Garps, has paid $2.3 million for reprint rights to Hotel.

Like Garp, the new book is a startlingly original family saga that combines macabre humor with Dickensian sentiment and outrage at cruelty, dogmatism and injustice. Unlike Garp, Hotel aggressively links realism with the tone and symbolism of fable. Imagine a fairy tale dealing explicitly with rape, incest, prostitution and terrorism. Imagine the Brothers Grimm without the dense mythological overlay.

The new 401-page book grew out of The Pension Grillparzer, the short story that Irving folded into the heart of Garp. That work tells of a father who takes his family to stay in a seedy Viennese hotel. It is home to a rundown Hungarian circus whose members include a shinless man who walks only on his hands and a depressed bear on a unicycle.

The moving force of Hotel New Hampshire is a sweet though dangerous dreamer named Winslow Berry (Harvard, 1946), who transports his household to the city of waltzes and Wittgenstein. There he buys a hotel that is part brothel and part headquarters for nitwit anarchists. Berry has previously failed in this line of work. In the first half of the novel, the superbly elegiac voice of the narrator, Win’s son John, describes his father’s attempts to convert a second-rate private school in “Dairy, N.H.” into the first Hotel New Hampshire. Berry’s business decisions include leaving the table and chairs in some of the former classrooms screwed to the floor and not changing the minisinks and kiddie toilets in bathrooms once reserved for the first grades.

To each other, we were as normal and nice as the smell of bread, we were just a family. In a family even exaggerations make perfect sense.

—Hotel New Hampshire

The Berry clan is affectionately bizarre, yet their various fates embody the powerfully personalized truths that tilt the world according to Irving. The cast of characters:

Win Berry. The charming troublemaker begins his career on the New England coast with the purchase of an aging trained bear called State O’ Maine and a 1937 Indian motorcycle with sidecar. The seller is a vagabond named Freud, who after World War II lures Win into the Viennese hotel deal. The hapless entrepreneur is blinded by a radical’s bomb and winds up at the third Hotel New Hampshire, in Maine, bought by his surviving children. Only the children do not have the heart to tell him that the resort has been turned into a rape crisis center; his life of illusion is thus lovingly preserved.

Mary Berry. Win’s wife and mother of his five children. She makes an early exit when her Europe-bound plane crashes into the Atlantic. Her departure is crucial because she was the only one who could keep her husband loosely tied to reality.

Franny. The eldest Berry daughter, who has inherited her mother’s fudge-detector. Early on, for example, she perceives that timid Brother John is deeply in love with her. The unorthodox resolution of this passion is postponed many years because of Franny’s reaction to being gang-raped by preppies. But honesty, blood ties and spunk prevail. She is avenged and finds happiness as a famous actress and wife of an ex-professional football player.

Lilly. Youngest daughter and saddest Berry. Less than 4 ft. tall, she is neither big nor lucky enough to handle her illusions. She becomes a bestselling author before jumping from her 14th-floor New York apartment. Her death underscores the book’s most haunting refrain, “Keep passing open windows.”

Frank. Almost as sad as Lilly. A loyal, ungainly homosexual, a cynic and pedant who ends up as a successful literary agent.

Egg. The youngest Berry and almost too painful to mention. He plunges into the Atlantic with his mother and Sorrow, the stuffed remains of the family’s old, flatulent Labrador retriever. It is the first object that pops to the surface after the crash. Hence another refrain, “Sorrow floats,” repeated throughout the book.

Iowa Bob. Paternal grandfather, football coach and source of the important maxim: “You’ve got to get obsessed and stay obsessed.” Bob embodies the necessity to live with purpose and goals. Ironically, he dies of fright.

Horace Walpole once said that the world is comic to those who think and tragic to those who feel. I hope you’ll agree with me that Horace Walpole somewhat simplifies the world by saying this. Surely both of us think and feel; in regard to what’s comic and what’s tragic, Mrs. Poole, the world is all mixed up. —Garp

Mrs. Poole was the Findlay, Ohio, housewife who wrote T.S. Garp to complain that his books made fun of people’s troubles. Win Berry’s son John will receive no such mail. He lives almost entirely in his family. His preparation for life is largely symbolic; as a jogger and weight lifter, he has the strength and endurance to repel invaders and shoulder his relatives’ burdens. Characteristically, he marries the most imaginatively troubled woman in the book, a rape victim who spends many angry years in a bear suit as a bouncer at a brothel.

Unreal? Naturally. Bizarre? Of course. Irving takes considerable pleasure in bucking the normal expectations of an audience. The prevailing taste of most contemporary readers is for realism, especially when the technique applies to incredible romances and hollow documentary fiction. Garp proved that there was a large unfulfilled appetite for imaginative literature—for the athletically contorted novel that, nevertheless, rings emotionally and psychologically true.

Hotel New Hampshire should continue to appease that hunger, even though its first-person narrative precludes the life-to-death cycle that made T.S. Garp so overtly heroic. John Berry’s story is not resolved in violent, dramatic action but in a quiet balancing of sorrow and hope. It is a difficult act, and it is not faultless. The dazzling characterizations and sense of American place in the first part of the novel tend to get scuffed in transit to Europe. There are tics and indulgences. But the book is redeemed by the healing properties of its conclusion. Like a burlesque Tempest, Hotel New Hampshire puts the ordinary world behind, evokes a richly allusive fantasy and returns to reality refreshed and strengthened.

Oh, the things you want/ Are very private/ Private, private,/ Very private. Oh, the only ways there are/ To get them/ Are very public/ Public, public.

—Setting Free the Bears

“Mr. Irving? He’s a good account,” says Robert Fairchild, owner of the Putney General Store at the intersection of Main and Route 5. “He buys his wines here—mainly California—sometimes stops in for a cold drink after jogging. And,” says Fairchild, emphasizing how general his store is, “I’m also his tailor.” As it turns out, he makes John Irving’s dress clothes, fitting the author’s 40-in. chest and 32-in. waist with skill and elegance, and charging $300 for a suit that would cost $600 in Boston or New York.

Irving keeps these spiffy outfits for big-city occasions, preferring the local plumage for everyday: jeans, worn flannel shirts and running shoes, as long as there is no snow on the ground. Putney is in extreme southern Vermont, the part that carloads of weekend skiers whiz through on their way to the slopes of Stowe and Sugar bush. In summer, dairymen graze milk herds on the low hills. There are apple orchards, small farms and a nursery that specializes in wild flowers.

Affluent parents of Boston and thereabouts know the town for the Putney School. It has tutored children of the famous, including some Kennedys. The area holds other well-known people, including retired Senator George Aiken, former Ambassador Ellsworth Bunker and Painter Jim Dine. Ted Williams is said to visit an ex-wife occasionally in these parts.

But the style around town is to be underwhelmed by celebrities. Very Yankee. Says General Store Owner Fairchild: “Putney people are closemouthed: they don’t advertise.”

Certainly not Putney’s most famous literary resident. The mailbox at the foot of the road leading to John and Shyla Irving’s house is flat black and conspicuously free of lettering. But the sign on the garage at the top of t he road reads THE DOG BITES. He does, too, under the name of Stranger, part shepherd, part Husky, part senile. One whiff of the garage where Stranger lies dreaming is enough to realize who probably inspired Sorrow, the old Labrador.

A snappish dog was unnecessary in the days before Garp. But after his smashing success, Irving’s 19th century converted red barn became a target for autograph seekers and scraggly youths offering to do odd jobs for a chance to receive Garpian wisdom at the feet of their reluctant guru. In fact, before Irving’s rugged head was known to the nation, the author was a Putney person who did advertise.

After his first novel, Setting Free the Bears, was published, Irving’s Volvo carried vanity plates bearing the single word FROT. It was a mispronunciation of a familiar four-letter sexual expletive that was used throughout the book by a lunatic European. Says the author in his clean, tight accent: “I lived in Putney for ten years, and people would keep coming up to me and saying, ‘What does that mean?’ That was a way of revealing to me that they had not read my book, so I would lie and say things like ‘It means peace in Finnish.’ But gradually it got out what it meant and people were not so approving.”

Years later, FROT gave way to GARP, resulting in honking by tailing motorists and notes under the windshield wipers. Recalls the motorist: “It was like driving around with a sign on your head.” The big, blue ’78 Checker and white ’79 Volvo now in the driveway carry impersonal numbers. The old green and white vanity plates hang at casual angles on a small shed at one end of Irving’s swimming pool.

One has to look hard around the house to find other signs of big spending. Shyla Irving, a professional photographer, now has a well-equipped darkroom; she recently put a $1,000 lens on an old camera. The kitchen is dominated by a cast-iron Garland, a gas stove prized by serious cooks. Outside on a lawn, surrounded by a neighbor’s fields and orchards, there is something that at first appears to be a helicopter landing pad. It is a wrestling mat.

Anyone seeing them in the wrestling room would have thought they were a parody team miming wrestlers, moving with an exaggerated gentleness antithetical to their purpose. They lumbered and rolled and carried each other around in an almost elderly fashion. Some of them, tired from running in the woods or straining against the weightlifting contraptions, actually slept. They came to this hot-house wearing double layers of sweatsuits with towels around their heads, and even as they slept they kept a sweat running. Tight against the wall and in the corners of the room where they would not accidentally be rolled on, they lay in mounds like bears.

—The 158-Pound Marriage

Like writing, wrestling requires great individual effort. One belongs to a team, but Irving’s vivid image is a long tunnel of lonely concentration. He began “rolling around” at Exeter.

David Plimpton, a New York psychologist, was Irving’s school sparring partner 20 years ago. He recalls the future novelist as highly competitive and tenacious. Says Plimpton: “He had a very good side-leg takedown. On top he could ride about anything. He was a real urban cowboy.”

Adds Frances (“Frankie”) Irving, 62, the author’s mother and a longtime wrestling fan: “He was aggressive. His senior year he won every match.”

Irving is passing his knowledge and enthusiasm for the sport on to his sons. Brendan, built like his father, is just beginning. Colin is already a promising prospect. He is 5 ft. 10 in. with big hands and an uncanny instinct for his opponent’s next move. Says Irving: “I have a $100 bet with Colin that I’ll beat him on my 40th birthday, which is only 20 days away from his 17th. But he is already beating me. He’s got the money in his pocket unless I catch him.”

“History takes time,” Irving once wrote. “I couldn’t wait to grow up,” he now says, remembering his years at Exeter. “I was a humorless kid. I was not an entertainer; I was very grim.” Frankie Irving’s view of her son is less harsh: “He was not an exuberant or overenthusiastic child, although I don’t think it’s quite accurate to label him as an introvert. I think he kept a lot of things to himself.” Classmate Charles C. Krulak, now a lieutenant colonel in the Marine Corps, remembers a different John. Says Krulak: “He was a popular and natural leader, and a superb mimic. He also had a real talent for the short story. I don’t recall any of their plots except that they usually concerned 138-lb. wrestlers.”

As the son of a faculty member, Irving felt the need to uphold high standards of behavior. As captain of the school wrestling team he piled up points. His grades were another matter. Though Irving excelled in history and English, math, science and foreign languages pulled him down to a C-minus average. It took him five years to get through Exeter. Still, by the time he graduated at 19, he knew what he wanted: to continue wrestling and to write novels. At the time they were difficult ambitions.

Rejected by the University of Wisconsin, he went to the University of Pittsburgh, “because of the coach.” But outside of New England, the collegiate lightweight found the competition too stiff. After a dispiriting year, he left for the University of New Hampshire at Durham, only ten miles from Exeter. “I felt that I had not got anywhere,” he says. In fact, he had come to the right place. The English faculty included a young Southern novelist named John Yount (Wolf at the Door, The Trapper’s Last Shot), who told the restless student with the broad shoulders and burning brown eyes what he wanted to hear. “It was so simple,” Irving remembers. ” Yount was the first person to point out to me that anything I did except writing was going to be vaguely unsatisfying.”

The advice was timely; Irving was fast on his way to being an angry and violent young man. He would go to a working-class Durham bar dressed in preppie clothes and wearing glasses. Sitting quietly with a beer and a book, he would wait for someone to tease and push him around. Then, he says, “I’d tie them up in knots and leave them on the floor.” The game lasted until one victim’s girlfriend knocked him cold with a napkin holder.

By 1963 it was time to move on. Irving left U.N.H. and enrolled at the Institute of European Studies in Vienna, which he chose because it sounded more exotic than London, Paris or Madrid. “It is good,” he says, “for a writer to go to a place where everything is novel, where you can’t even take the butter for granted, where the mayonnaise comes in a tube instead of a jar, where you are made to notice even the trivial things—especially the trivial things.”

Before going abroad, Irving took a course in German at a Harvard summer session. There he also learned the language of love. At a Cambridge party, the expatriate-in-training met Shyla Leary, a tall, dark-haired student of engineering and physics at Radcliffe. Says Shyla: “I was going out with a Saltonstall at the time. But I passed a bedroom and saw John alone sitting in his shorts and playing a banjo. I said to myself, ‘That’s for me.’ ” She had to wait a few months to get him.

At Vienna, Irving studied more German, wrote Shyla and began a novel about third-rate cowboys who stage a ridiculous rodeo in New England. The young writer had little experience in that arena; he was once dragged around by a steer for more than five minutes before he was finally able to bring the animal down. But the novel got away from him and eventually he abandoned it.

Europe offered Irving a large slice of the bohemian life. He explored by car and motorcycle, met painters and poets, worked out in gyms with burly grapplers who grunted in Slavic. He also met a man with an old trained bear, an animal that would prowl his future books.

An Irving bear is a pathetic creature whose strength and dignity are ridiculed by its overriding need to perform. Explains the author: “They have become good at learning tricks to amuse people, but they have been reduced to a shadow show, like so many people who have been taught the most arduous skills that most of us find silly—like writing, reading and even wrestling.”

The central caper of Setting Free the Bears, Irving’s picaresque first novel, is a plot to release all the animals from the Vienna Zoo. The book was written and rewritten between 1965 and 1967 at the University of Iowa’s Writers’ Workshop. The impassioned, charging prose announced the arrival of a fresh talent:

” ‘You’re free to go!’ I screamed. ‘Why don’t you? Don’t ask for too much!’ And responding to my voice was what sounded like the utter demolishment of the Biergarten. I pelted down there, through a crunchy dust of Uttered ashtrays. This was a primate sort of destruction, for sure; a vandalism of a shocking, human type. They had shattered the one-time funhouse mirror; chunks of it lay all over the Biergarten terrace. I kept looking down at my puzzlework reflection, looming over myself.

” ‘Just one more and that does me,’ I said. And moved to the reeking cage of the Rare Spectacled Bears, who were hiding behind their drinking-and-dunking pool when I opened their cage. I had to shout at them to make them come out. They came shoulder to shoulder across the floor, heads lowered like whipped dogs. They turned circles through the destroyed Biergarten, running too close together and butting themselves into umbrellas and hissing monkeys.

“This is enough, I thought. Enough, for sure. And I was winding through the other, roaring bear cages when Gallen screamed, Schrutt’s out! I thought. But when I squinted through cage corners and down the dark paths toward the Small Mammal House, I saw a man-shaped figure, loping more or less on all fours, turn the corner by the Monkey Complex—followed by another just like him, though not as thick in the chest. The orangutan and the lowland gorilla, in cahoots.”

One of the first to read, and like, the manuscript was an older struggling writer who was teaching there: Kurt Vonnegut. “A dear, dear man,” says Irving of his longtime friend, “enormously decent, generous and wise.” By this time John was married to Shyla, had a son and was just about making ends meet by bartending in Iowa City and selling peanuts and banners at college football games. In The Water-Method Man, a wily spoof of academe, he offered a forlorn description of the job: “I lug a large plywood board from gate to gate around the stadium. The board is wide and tippy with an easel-type stand; the wind blows it down; tiny gold footballs are scratched, buttons chip, pennants wrinkle and smudge. I get a commission: 10% of what I sell.” In the fall of 1967 the family moved to Putney, where the young father took a post teaching English at Windham College, which is now defunct.

We must have energy.


Distraction—a job, a family—is the writer’s great enemy. Talent is not enough. One must have the discipline and strength of a trained bear. Says Irving: “The way you define yourself as a writer is that you write every time you have a free minute. If you didn’t behave that way you would never do anything.”

The author’s definition of a free minute covers a lot of ground. Friends note that if Irving grows abstracted in company, the chances are he is mulling a plot twist or a change in his phrasing. He is compulsive about making revisions. “I never feel something is finished, even on the galleys,” he says. “By then it may be just little things, a tense, a semicolon. I make changes in the finished book. No one else will see them, but I know they are there.” To Irving, the ear can be as important as the eye. Many of the alterations that are penciled into his books are put there after the public readings that he frequently gives at colleges and seminars. The first to hear a new work is usually his family.

This is the way much of The Water-Method Man (1972) and The 158-Pound Marriage (1974) were composed. The latter is a bleak tale about the complications of spouse swapping. Between teaching at Mount Holyoke College in South Hadley, Mass., and stints at the Writers’ Workshop in Iowa, Irving typed away in a small shed, the same one that overlooks the pool. There was no pool then, and the future did not seem to promise one. He now works mainly in a study above the kitchen. Weather permitting, one of his three typewriters can be found set up out of doors.

Though reviewers were usually impressed with Irving’s originality and verve, the most important critic was not. Random House, his publisher, was un impressed by his sales figures. The first chapters of the author’s next novel met a cool response from some house editors. There followed a familiar story: author complains that his books are not handled or promoted properly; publisher is sympathetic and hints that the writer might be happier at another house.

Irving took his unfinished manuscript to Henry Robbins at Button. Robbins, who died of a heart attack two years ago, was one of the outstanding fiction editors of his generation. The editor of Joan Didion, Wilfrid Sheed and Stanley Elkin, he responded ecstatically to the new work. Wrote Robbins in a report to his bosses: “A major novel about a wonderfully eccentric mother and son, very funny and very moving at the same time. Sure to be the ‘breakthrough’ book by an immensely talented novelist in his mid-30s.” His faith in Irving was backed by a $20,000 advance—plus $150,000 on a next book, sight unseen.

For the first time the writer returned home to work without having to worry about money. In the spring Robbins received the following postcard: “Putney, 25 May 1977: hot weather, swimming weather, deer fly weather. Finished Lunacy and Sorrow this a.m. . . . Novel is 531 pages long, has all the ingredients of an Xrated soap opera; I hope it will cause a few smiles among the tough-minded and break a few softer hearts.”

The book, its title changed to The World According to Garp, did all that. In addition it managed to churn a few stomachs and raise some blood pressures. Not everyone who read Garp responded to the novel’s fun and games. Many readers were offended by Irving’s mating of the truly tragic and grotesquely comic, by the car crash that kills little Walt and removes Michael Milton’s penis, by Roberta Muldoon, the transsexual football player, and the Ellen Jamesians, the radical feminist group whose members cut out their tongues to protest rape. Among those with reservations was the author’s mother. Says Frances Irving: “There are parts of Garp that are too explicit for me.” Literary heroes like T.S. Garp and John Berry of Hotel New Hampshire challenge social dogmas and traditional sexual roles. Although they sleep with women and could flatten most opponents, Garp and Berry are mother-men. They nurture and protect an extended family of offspring with the tenacity of a she-bear.

Garp/Berry/Irving’s philosophy is basic stuff: one must live willfully, purposefully and watchfully. Accidents, bad luck, underloads and open windows lurk everywhere—and the dog really bites. It is only a matter of time. Nobody gets out alive, yet few want to leave early. Irving’s popularity is not hard to understand. His world is really the world according to nearly everyone.

It is only the vividness of memory that keeps the dead alive forever. A writer’s job is to imagine everything so personally that the fiction is as vivid as our personal memories.


Fall will soon come to New England. Tourists will arrive to witness the splendid death of leaves. The first fires will turn back the night chill, and woodpiles will begin their slow decline toward spring. Upstairs, in his study over the kitchen, John Irving will be wrestling Turgenev’s ghost. —By R.Z. Sheppard

A Sampler from Irving’s New Novel

It was an up-and-down day at the Hotel New Hampshire, getting ready for New Year’s Eve: I remember that something more pronounced than even the usual weave of silliness and sadness seemed to hang over us all, as if we’d be conscious, from time to time, of hardly mourning for Iowa Bob at all—and conscious, at other times, that our most necessary responsibility (not just in spite of but because Iowa Bob) was to have fun. It was perhaps our first test of a dictum passed down to my father from old Iowa Bob himself; it was a dictum Father preached to us, over and over again. It was so familiar to us, we wouldn’t dream of not behaving as if we believed it, although we probably never knew—until much later—whether we believed it or not.

The dictum was connected with Iowa Bob’s theory that we were all on a big ship—”on a big cruise, across the world.” And in spite of the danger of being swept away, at any time, or perhaps because of the danger, we were not allowed to be depressed or unhappy. The way the world worked was not cause for some sort of blanket cynicism or sophomoric despair; according to my father and Iowa Bob, the way the world worked—which was badly—was just a strong incentive to live purposefully, and to be determined about riving well.

“Happy fatalism,” Frank would speak of their philosophy, later; Frank, as a troubled youth, was not a believer.

And one night, when we were watching a wretched melodrama on the TV above the bar in the Hotel New Hampshire, my mother said, “I don’t want to see the end of this. I like happy endings.”

And Father said, “There are no happy endings.”

“Right!” cried Iowa Bob—an odd mixture of exuberance and stoicism in his cracked voice. “Death is horrible, final, and frequently premature,” Coach Bob declared.

“So what?” my father said.

“Right!” cried Iowa Bob. “That’s the point: So what?”

What you mean, how old am I? About one hundred! But Viennese answer is better: we say, “I keep passing the open windows.” This is an old joke. There was a street clown called King of the Mice: he trained rodents, he did horoscopes, he could impersonate Napoleon, he could make dogs fart on command. One night he jumped out his window with all his pets in a box. Written on the box was this: “Life is serious but art is fun!” I hear his funeral was a party. A street artist had killed himself. Nobody had supported him but now everybody missed him. Now who would make the dogs make music and the mice pant? The bear knows this, too: It is hard work and great art to make life not so serious. Prostitutes know this too.

Even before she started talking to Franny, I could see how desperately important this woman’s private unhappiness was to her, and how—in her mind—the only credible reaction to the event of rape was hers. That someone else might have responded differently to a similar abuse only meant to her that the abuse couldn’t possibly have been the same.

“People are like that,” Iowa Bob would have said.

“They need to make their own worst experiences universal. It gives them a kind of support.”

“She probably has had a most unhappy life,” Iowa Bob would have said. “You’re not being logical,” Frank said, and I glared at him.

Father looked at Franny. It reminded me of the looks he occasionally gave Mother; he was looking into the future, again, and he was looking for forgiveness—in advance. He wanted to be excused for everything that would happen. It was as if the power of his dreaming was so vivid that he felt compelled to simply act out whatever future he imagined—and we were being asked to tolerate his absence from reality, and maybe his absence from our lives, for a while. That is what “pure love” is: the future. And that’s the look Father gave to Franny.

“You can’t be twenty-two all your life,” I remind him, and we lift and lift for a while. On those mornings, with the Maine mist not yet burned off, and the sea damp settled upon us, I can imagine that I’m just starting the voyage all over again—I can believe I’m lying on the rug old Sorrow liked to lie on, and it’s Iowa Bob beside me, instructing me, instead of me instructing my father.

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