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Reservations

The Hotel New Hampshire

by John Irving
Dutton/A Henry Robbins Book, 401 pp., $15.50

I was decidedly a late-comer to The World According to Garp. Over-urged by enthusiasts in the summer of 1978, I became resistant and did not even make a start on the novel until it had appeared in its rainbow assortment of paperbacks. Then I had trouble getting past the first chapter, which seemed to me unbearably facetious in its account of the engendering of T.S. Garp by a ball-turret gunner lobotomized by shrapnel and a nurse who hated sex. The prospect of more than 400 pages of jokey contrivance, weird sex, and eye-gouging details of physical horror was off-putting; I have always disliked a kind of hyperkinetic fiction in which a proliferation of “vividly” written incidents is made to do the work of a sustained engagement with a complex and thematically charged action.

But on my third try I reached the scene where the young Garp ventures on to the steep roof of the Steering School to catch pigeons with a lacrosse stick, and I kept going, seduced at last by the suppleness and energy of the writing and by the vision (as much comic as doom-laden) of imminent peril that henceforth irradiated the narrative. Though there were still sections in which sensationalism got out of hand and became exploitative, I felt that Irving’s inventiveness was on the whole matched by a depth of commitment to his material and that mere contrivance was kept at bay almost until the end by a tender and passionate concern with Garp’s family life and his career as a writer.

Though Irving’s earlier novels prefigure in various ways the themes that later engage him, they do not prepare the reader for the sheer abundance of Garp or for the superb display of narrative self-confidence with which the author directs his characters in their vaudevillian turns. For the sake of a writer’s career, such a performance should ideally be followed by a very different kind of a book, one that would not constantly invite comparison with its remarkable predecessor. Irving obviously had other intentions, for he has made it almost impossible for anyone familiar with Garp to read The Hotel New Hampshire without constant cross-referral to the former. But before venturing further into the matter, I had best give a short account of the new novel for the sake of those tardy readers who have not yet caught up with the numerous reviews and copious publicity attending its publication.

The Hotel New Hampshire is essentially the story of an oddball New England family, the Berrys. The parents are Winslow and Mary, both born in 1920, and the children include Frank (a grumpy, prudish boy who is incidentally homosexual), Franny (an outspoken, foul-mouthed, reckless, and warm-hearted girl), John (the novel’s narrator, who goes in for wrestling and weight-lifting), Lilly (an exceptionally serious child who stops growing at an early age), and Egg (a little boy who loves costumes). Win’s father, a philosophical football coach called alternately Iowa Bob and Coach Bob, and a vile-smelling old labrador called Sorrow are also members of the household. The novel begins with a rather charming and nostalgic flashback to the courtship of Win and Mary, who both have summer jobs at a resort hotel in Maine in 1939; there they encounter an Austrian animal trainer named Freud and his aging black bear known both as “Earl” (from the sound of his growl) and “State o’Maine.” Win buys the bear and gains the hand of Mary. Almost at once they begin producing their peculiar brood. The section ends with the death of old Earl, shot by a “dumb kid” who did not realize that the bear was somebody’s pet.

We leap ahead to the mid-Fifties. Win Berry, who has a fixation on hotels, quits his job as a prep-school teacher and converts a former girls’ school into the first Hotel New Hampshire. The eccentricities of the hotel’s staff, its furnishings (chairs from the former school-rooms still screwed to the floor, tiny toilets and washbasins designed for very small girls, etc.), and its guests (among them a circus of dwarfs) are fully equal to those of the Berry family, who take up residence there. The fourteen-year-old John has an affair (limited to rainy mornings) with a blowzy waitress. Franny is gang-raped by three “ringers” on the prep-school football team, led by an icily arrogant boy named Chipper Dove to whom she is perversely attracted; subsequently she is comforted to some degree by another teammate, a powerful and kindly black whose sister had undergone a similar experience. Smelly old Sorrow and Coach Bob meet their untimely ends. Sorrow is stuffed.

The next move carries the family all the way to Vienna, where Win, at the instigation of the old animal trainer Freud, takes over the management of a decrepit hotel and renames it the Hotel New Hampshire. But by this time the family is missing two more members, for Mary and little Egg perish in a plane crash en route to Vienna; Sorrow, whose stuffed body was being carried along by Egg, floats to the surface of the sea. In Vienna we resume our acquaintance with old Freud, now blind, and meet another trained bear, who acts as Freud’s seeing-eye and as a kind of bouncer at the hotel; the bear also speaks English, for she is in fact an unhappy, tough-talking, good-hearted lesbian named Susie, a Sarah Lawrence dropout who has taken to wearing a bear suit. There is much, much more: a terrorist plot to blow up the Vienna State Opera; the return of the now-famous Berrys to the United States, and the sudden emergence of tiny Lilly as a literary success; an episode of sibling incest; an elaborate revenge on Franny’s rapist, Chipper Dove; the purchase of a third Hotel New Hampshire…. But enough has been given to indicate the extraordinary whimsicality of this novel and to suggest, to those who have read Garp, the many links connecting the two books.

Among these are incidents involving (in no particular order) performing bears, rape, mutilation, seedy Viennese hotels, Viennese prostitutes, wrestling, and sudden death. While reading The Hotel New Hampshire, I had to pause repeatedly to ask myself how a particular motif had been played before. What was achieved by the new variation? What, indeed, was Irving’s purpose in constructing this Wagnerian nexus of subjects, images, and themes extending from one novel to the next? Take the matter of rape. “I feel uneasy,” Garp wrote, “that my life has come in contact with so much rape.” We are told that Garp himself would later write a novel which would have much to do with rape. Meanwhile, in Garp itself, we are subjected to harrowing accounts of the rape of two pre-teenage girls (one of whom, Ellen Jamison, has had her tongue cut out) and the attempted rape-murder of a young wife.

In The Hotel New Hampshire not only Franny but also Susie the bear is a rape victim. There is much dialogue on the subject, Susie being particularly eloquent. “Those thugs didn’t just want to fuck you, honey,” she says to Franny, “they wanted to take your strength away, and you let them…. Sweetheart! You have minimized the enormity of what has happened to you—just to make it a little easier to take.” To which Franny protests, “Whose rape is it?… I mean, you’ve got yours, I’ve got mine….” And there is still a third victim in the novel—Sabrina, the beautiful young black woman who instructs John Berry in the art of kissing; she, we are told, was not only raped but had all her teeth knocked out. At the novel’s end the third avatar of the Hotel New Hampshire is transformed into a rape-crisis center directed by Susie the bear; as such it parallels the refuge for distraught women set up by Garp’s mother Jenny in the preceding book.

Are we to assume that the rape of defenseless young girls, especially if accompanied by mutilation, has some special poignancy for Irving, arousing some private guilt for which repeated fictional atonement must be made? Presumably not—though both Garp and John Berry are made to go on at length about their abhorrence of the crime. It seems more likely that he is playing an elaborate literary game, teasing the reader with hints of profound continuities underlying metamorphosis—Ellen Jamison is, after all, a reincarnation of the mythic Philomela and so, in thicker disguise, is Sabrina. Meanwhile, the multiplication of rapes has furnished no further insight into the nature—or the consequences—of sexual abuse. So it is with the other repetitions. We are invited to take part in a game called “Count the Bears,” beginning with the “liberation” of those truculent, shambling, unpredictable mammals from the Schönbrunn Zoo (Setting Free the Bears); we can observe them riding motorcycles in both Garp and The Hotel New Hampshire, and in the latter we can actually watch one of them undergo a non-Ovidian metamorphosis into a truculent, lovably growling human female. The bear motif and the rape motif are joined when Susie, wearing her bear suit, threatens Franny’s terrified rapist (Chipper Dove) with rape by a sexually aroused bear. But the significance of neither motif has been enhanced, and the whole episode is about as funny (or profound) as a fraternity initiation in high school.

Again and again The Hotel New Hampshire disappointed me by the perfunctoriness of its situations and their handling. That quality of jokey contrivance which initially put me off in Garp is painfully in evidence throughout the new novel. When, during an electricity blackout, an elderly patrolman switches on the ignition of his squad car at the very moment that the power comes back on, lighting up every window in the hotel facing him (“as if he had done it“) and startling the old cop into a fatal heart attack, we may smile at the joke and register once again Irving’s predilection for sudden death; when, fifty pages later, Coach Bob, the philosophical grandfather, suffers a fatal heart attack at the unexpected sight of the stuffed dog Sorrow falling out of a closet, we are more likely to respond with an exasperated shrug. The incident has been too blatantly set up, made too predictable. How often can one be expected to respond to the play on the name Sorrow, which runs through much of the book? The nature of Coach Bob’s death is clearly intended, in turn, to underscore the thematic seriousness of the following exchange—a flashback—that occurs a dozen pages further on:

And one night, when we were watching a wretched melodrama on the TV…, 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?”

Thus the family maxim was that an unhappy ending did not undermine a rich and energetic life. This was based on the belief that there were no happy endings…. Franny and I were probably believers of this religion—or if, at times, we doubted Iowa Bob, the world would always come up with something that seemed to prove the old lineman right. We never knew what Lilly’s religion was (no doubt it was a small idea, kept to herself), and Egg would be the retriever of Sorrow, in more than one sense. Retrieving Sorrow is a kind of religion, too.

So much for the tragic vision of life. The passage is typical of the prevailingly juvenile tone of the novel, which is full of the bittersweet wisdom of a late-hour bull session interrupted from time to time by exploding firecrackers.

Events of potentially great impact (young John’s sexual initiation by the much older waitress, the death of Mary Berry and Egg) are summarily treated, as if the mere statement that they have occurred will stimulate an appropriate (and automatic) response from the reader. Characters are for the most part glibly sketched in or else sentimentalized, as with the brave, handsome, generous, and sexy black athlete, Junior Jones, and his sister Sabrina; only Franny seems to me successfully realized as a character, made touching by her boldness and vulnerability. A speeded-up, shorthand treatment of character and situation of course works in certain types of comic writing but not in a novel of such length and pretensions.

The “throw-away” attitude toward the material is matched by the slackness of the style. Succumbing to what Henry James saw as a dangerous “looseness” inherent in first-person narration, Irving allows his John Berry to go on and on, dully including quantities of inert and unredeemed detail.

Ronda Ray, cruising the dance floor, spotted Frank behind the empty tables, but Frank fled before she could ask him to dance. Egg was gone, so Frank had probably been waiting for an excuse to go corner Egg alone. Lilly was dancing, stoically, with one of Father and Mother’s friends, Mr. Matson, an unfortunately tall man—although, if he had been short, he couldn’t have been short enough for Lilly. They looked like an awkward, perhaps unmentionable animal act.

Father danced with Mrs. Matson and Mother stood at the bar, talking with an old crony who was at the Hotel New Hampshire nearly every night—a drinking friend of Coach Bob’s; his name was Merton, and he was the foreman at the lumberyard. Merton was a wide, heavy man with a limp and mighty, swollen hands….

Nowhere in The Hotel New Hampshire does the language have the confidence, the aphoristic precision, and the vivacity that are among the pleasures of The World According to Garp. As if aware of the stylistic inadequacies of the new book, Irving resorts to the use of literary crutches, quoting at length from the poems of Donald Justice and from the famous conclusion of The Great Gatsby, which makes Lilly burst into tears and declare that their father is a Gatsby, always in pursuit of the receding green light. The very rhythms of the end of The Great Gatsby are echoed in the final paragraphs of The Hotel New Hampshire: “So we dream on. Thus we invent our lives…. We dream on and on: the best hotel, the perfect family, the resort life. And our dreams escape us almost as vividly as we can imagine them.” Unfortunately, the quotations and echoes serve only to emphasize the lameness of Irving’s own prose.

In this review I have, almost at the novelist’s invitation, used a good book—Garp—to belabor a poor one. Enough. John Irving is a talented and resourceful writer. I doubt that he has been misled by the hoopla, cover stories, etc., surrounding his latest production. I like to think that next time he will present us with something as exciting as Garp—and as different from that novel as he can possibly make it.

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