FEATURE JOHN IRVING
Wrestling with words
For acclaimed writer John Irving, the only thing that beats a good novel is beating a good wrestler. As the author of The World According To Gar/2 publishes his memoirs, Ann Donald discovers he has taken
more than a ringside seat.
12 The List 8-21 Mar 1996
ohn Irving is a big man who writes big books. The ringmaster of American storytelling chalks up a beefy IO7IbS on the scales and his ‘bullworker’ novels come in at a little under that. From his 1978 bestseller The World According 7o Gar/i. later a blockbusting film starring Robin ‘Garp‘ Williams. to 1094‘s A Son Of The (‘ireusz Irving has carved out a Mount Sinai-sized reputation for writing cracking. compulsive novels worthy of a clutch of tropical rainforests.
It comes as something of a blow. then. to discover that his somewhat unconventional autobiography The Imaginary Girlfriend is a puny fly-weight of a book. crawling in at only 149 pages. Weight. it transpires is a key factor. not because Irving is a member of Obese Anonymous. but because the slim memoir is fuelled by the 54-year- old’s dual passions of wrestling (“‘what do you weigh?” is . question wrestlers always ask‘) and writing (‘I like big books‘). Irving developed an interest for both at the tender age of fourteen: wrestling. because ‘it was the first thing I was good at’ and writing. because his dyslexia put him in the category of ‘underdog'. He has had to rewrite and redraft everything from schoolwork to creative writing.
The rewards for his literary efforts took a while to come to fruition — he was a creative writing student and lecturer before becoming a successful writer. On the mats. though. Irving wrestled competitively for twenty years. was a certified referee for 24 years and coached until he was 47 — he led his sons Colin and Brendan to the New England championship titles that a few decades earlier he had been denied.
The Imaginary Girlfriend is unlike any of the work that has etched Irving's name on the minds of the international book-buying public. It is stripped bare ofthe fanciful labyrinthian tales of Setting Free The Bears; the spouse-swapping in The 158 Pound Marriage; and the assassins. friendly whores and earless Newfoundlanders Of The World According To Carp. Gone are the abortionists and orphans of The Cider House Rules; the unnaturally small boys with
‘When you think of writing a memoir, you’ve a'ready Started thinkmg couldn’t start a new novel. so I
deformed vocal chords in A Prayer For Owen Meany. and the sex changes and fortunes stuffed in dildos in A Son Of The Circus. In The Imaginary Girlfriend. Irving is more inclined to rhapsodise about wrestling moves like a ‘bent leg Turk‘ or a ‘cheap tilt of a cross-body ride’.
This is a short. simple and lucid memoir from a member of the National Wrestling Hall of Fame — Kirk Douglas and General Norman Schwarzkopf have also been honoured. In it. Irving salutes his mentors from apparently incompatible realms — the sweaty. physical world of wrestling and the calm. intellectual world of literature.
The painful and rather unusual impetus behind Irving writing his memoir was a wrestling injury that put him out of commission for four months last year - a torn rotator-cuff tendon that required a little bone sawing in the acromion clavicle joint. ‘With four hours of physical therapy a day I knew I
decided to set myself a goal and write an autobiography of 100 pages in four months.’ says Toronto-based Irving.
The Imaginary Girlfriend was what Irving calls his ‘perverse’ riposte to those persistent journalists seeking to find autobiographical strains in his work. ‘I wanted to demonstrate that nothing very much has happened to me,’ says the big man, laughing. ‘That’s why my life story. compared to the ones I invent for the people in my books. is really quite simple. I have always said that if I ever did write a book about me it would only be an eighth of the length of any of my novels. Since I have dedicated myself to these two disciplines of wrestling and writing. I haven’t really had time to have an expansive life.’
Probe him about the chances of a full-length autobiography in later years and Irving emits a scandalised ‘Oh God no’. before adding: ‘Wrestling and writing are the only interesting things about me. It’s nobody’s business but mine. the details about my first wife or my second wife. I am not about to go over the laundry of my life.’
It might not be a soul-searching