Confession: I am not a subjective reviewer.
John Irving was my first teacher at the University of Iowa Writer’s Workshop. He was smart and friendly. He had published three novels and was working on what would become The World According to Garp, which I believe didn’t yet have a title.
Admission to the Writer’s Workshop was awfully competitive, something like ten admissions a year out of 500 applicants. Besides, I had applied quite late. Anyway, I wasn’t one of the chosen. Still, I decided to try it out and requested to take a summer class.
Sometime during that summer, I asked John Irving if he might read a novella I had written based on a place I had lived which might be called a hippie commune. Characters in my story included the Zarp brothers and an imaginary bear named Pooh. And in one scene the main character Otis is typing in the back yard of an Iowa City home when a great wind comes out of nowhere and blows away the manuscript he has spent all summer writing. His only copy. This was before computers.
John Irving commented with kindness and encouragement about my work and asked if I would be returning in fall. I said the program hadn’t admitted me. The next day, the administrative assistant called me in and told me I was admitted.
When The World According to Garp came out and I noticed that besides the names Garp and Zarp being similar, and that a character is called Pooh, a sudden wind blows Garp’s manuscript all over town, I had to wonder.
I’m very fond of John Irving. If he either consciously or subconsciously drew from my work, he’s quite welcome to do so, and I am flattered.
About a month ago, I picked up A Prayer for Owen Meany, which I had first read some years before. It’s a huge book, over 200,000 words. What drives the story is the narrator John Wheelwright’s contention that he believes in God because of Owen Meany. Soon enough we learn that Owen has premonitions about his death.
My best friend Eric Curtis had indisputable premonitions about his death. Then he died at the terribly young age of seventeen. Eric’s life and death became part of the novella I gave John Irving.
Over the first couple hundred pages of A Prayer for Owen Meany, perhaps because of my preoccupation with comparing Owen and Eric, I found myself impatient with scenes that felt slow or unnecessary to the story, the core of which is a rather straightforward tale of two boys growing up in a New England town and confronting the sordid politics of the Vietnam War era.
But later, as if I were still Professor Irving’s student, I found myself captivated by narrator John Wheelwright’s reflections about teaching literature. He maintains that what can be most worthy in a novel is not the story itself but the inclusion of elements capable of enriching with their uniqueness of thought or language, or by the beauty of their distinctness or precision.
With this instruction in mind, the story itself became far less important to me than the storytelling reflected in the characters, settings, and events. These elements so illuminate our world, the book has become a treasure of mine, one of the few novels I will recommend to any reader I suspect may have the patience, depth of l understanding, and open-mindedness to do it justice.
For more about Eric Curtis and his premonitions see my memoir Reading Brother Lawrence.