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 …