Over ten years ago my friend lend me one of her father’s books. It was a tattered, often-borrowed German copy of “Owen Meany“, published by Diogenes.
John Irving took me by surprise, to say the least. I had just met the master of first lines.
Take a look at the beginning of “A Prayer for Owen Meany“:
“I am doomed to remember a boy with a wrecked voice. Not because of his voice, or because he was the smallest person I ever knew, or even because he was the instrument of my mother’s death, but because he is the reason I believe in God.
I am a Christian because of Owen Meany.”
This is how you hook your audience.
Fortunately, Irving’s grip didn’t loosen over time. I got caught up in the story as if it were a vortex, with some apprehension – could it be as great as the first line promised?- but without the possibility to stop.
Soon I discovered the second thing Irving’s mastered: the entanglement of what seems like a hundred characters and storylines, all wrapped up in a tightly woven ball of yarn. And the surprising discovery that all makes sense in the end. If “A Prayer for Owen Meany” hasn’t made me a religious person, it certainly has helped to enforce my belief that most things happen for a good reason. Still, I’m no believer like Owen:
“It made [Owen] furious when I suggested that anything was an “accident”— especially anything that had happened to him; on the subject of predestination, Owen Meany would accuse Calvin of bad faith…”
I quickly fell in love with Dr. Larch:
“Goodnight you princes of Maine, you kings of New England”
Following those two novels I began a barrage on my local bookstore and library, my shelves filled with all the beautiful Diogenes copies of Irving’s books.
As my English improved I rekindled my love for Irving’s prose with the originals. “A Prayer for Owen Meany” is still dear to me, but my favourite is, and always be, “The World According to Garp“.
Among Irving’s novels it’s the one I’ve read the most often. I lost count along the way, but I can vouch for at least six sessions.
Every time I read it, I discover something new about the book and about myself.
Though I find saying “this is my favourite book” somewhat silly, it comes dangerously close to that title. Were I to run out of my burning flat, and had I still room in my arms next to my cats, I’d probably snatch my copy of Garp.
As I began to re-read Irving’s novels I discovered “Black Swan”, who published pretty paperback versions like this one: and helped me get over my white Diogenes paperbacks, which weren’t available in English.
Anyone who has never picked up one of John Irving’s books should take his 70th birthday as an opportunity to give him a gift. Buying an Irving novel would be a nice idea.
If you’re stumped as to where to start, this is my top five list:
- The World According to Garp
- A Widow for One Year
- A Prayer for Owen Meany
- The Cider House Rules
- The Hotel New Hampshire
And if you’re still hesitant, here are the first lines of my top five, as an incentive:
- “Garp’s mother, Jenny Fields, was arrested in Boston in 1942 for wounding a man in a movie theatre.”
- “One night when she was four and sleeping in the bottom bunk of her bunk bed, Ruth Cole woke to the sound of lovemaking – it was coming from her parent’s bedroom.”
- “I am doomed to remember a boy with a wrecked voice.”
- “In the hospital of the orphanage – the boys’ division at St. Cloud’s, Maine – two nurses were in charge of naming the new babies and checking that their little penises were healing from the obligatory circumcision.
- “The summer my father bought the bear, none of us was born – we weren’t even conceived: Not Frank, the oldest; not Franny, the loudest; not me, the next; and not the youngest of us, Lily and Egg.”