At 73, John Irving has lost none of his fighting spirit. The writer and ex-wrestler lets rip at Trump, US politics, Caitlyn Jenner’s critics – and the ‘extreme patriotism’ of the Great American Novel. Then he throws our interviewer to the floor
Wednesday 3 February 2016
John Irving, much-loved novelist, Oscar-winning screenwriter, and the last Great American Author standing, hooks me in a headlock and slams his heel down on my toes. A noise in an unfamiliar register escapes me. Irving’s publicist winces and shrinks into her boutique sofa. This wasn’t on the book-tour itinerary.
Before he became rich and famous, the author of The Hotel New Hampshire and A Prayer for Owen Meany subsidised his writing career and raised his family with a second job in wrestling. He grappled and he coached. But he’s 73 now: I’ve got two decades on him, and I’ve challenged him to show me a few moves. As we feint and weave around a London hotel suite, my half-remembered research comes back to me like a terrible reproof. Irving hasn’t touched a drop of alcohol in years and has regained the fighting trim he boasted when he was still in his storied leotard.
“If I have an opponent who’s as tall as you,” he says, “I’m thinking your legs are vulnerable. You have more legs to protect.” We crunch into each other like rutting stags, or as much like rutting stags as two men of mature years are going to get when there are things like creased trousers to bear in mind. Irving’s pecs are pressed against mine. Is that his wheezing lungs I can hear through his chocolate sports coat, I wonder rather shamefully, or is it the ringing in my ears?
“I can’t do anything in this position because of your height advantage,” he says.
“Yes,” I reply, “whereas I could chest-bump you.”
“Your stance should be lower,” he grunts. Like a punch-drunk palooka, I fall for this piece of gamesmanship. No sooner have I dipped my head than it’s accelerating towards my knees, propelled by the flying anvil of Irving’s elbow.
Forty years ago, Sylvester Stallone’s Rocky Balboa was a raw contender on the streets of Philly and Irving was making a name for himself with his fourth novel, The World According to Garp. In 2016, Stallone could win an Oscar for Creed, a return to form for his long-running prizefight franchise, while Irving is still very much in the game with his 14th work of fiction, Avenue of Mysteries. There’s a touch of sentimentality about the reception given to both of these ageing warriors.
In Irving’s case, his tale of a Mexican slumdog called Juan Diego, who becomes a successful author in the US, hasn’t met with unqualified acclaim (“One holy mess,” said the Spectator). But his loyal readers love his unvarnished, warm-hearted storytelling. He has sold in excess of 12m books in 35 languages, and bagged an Oscar of his own in 2000 after adapting his bestseller The Cider House Rules into a film starring Michael Caine and Charlize Theron.
“Avenue of Mysteries,” says Irving, “is about a Mexican-American. He’s 54 but seems much older. He takes a trip to the Philippines and everything he sees there reminds him of his childhood in Mexico, which he left as a teenager and has never gone back to. But in his dreams and memories, he is more alive in the past, specifically at the age of 14.”
There are elements of magical realism in the story, as well as the lurid iconography of Latin American Catholicism. “Juan Diego is a man who has been touched by many miracles – among them religious miracles, which this novel is built around. I wanted to make the point that, while he has always been suspicious of the man-made institution of the Catholic church, he is always seeking to believe.”
One by one, Irving’s old sparring partners have been counted out: Saul Bellow, Norman Mailer and John Updike are dead, while Philip Roth has announced his retirement. Irving’s the last of the great white writers, an endangered species on the reading lists of English faculties in the US. Not that he could care less. An admirer of Britain’s 19th-century yarn-spinners such as Hardy and especially Dickens, he has no interest in being “an intellectual”. As he says: “I have a hard time seeing myself in the portrait gallery of American writers. Given how most American writers behave, and what their subject matter is, I’m not very American.”
He points out that his first book, Setting Free the Bears, was a historical novel set in Vienna under the Nazis and later the Soviets. “Most of my literary models weren’t American. I didn’t grow up on Hemingway, Fitzgerald and Faulkner.” The old grappler even launches an audacious flying squirrel at the Great American Novel. “I never wanted to write it. It always struck me as an act of patriotic extremism that anyone would care to write the Great American Novel. How about just a good one?’
Irving has been married to his second wife, Janet Turnbull, for almost 30 years. She’s also his agent. He’s the father of three sons. For a two-fisted author who makes the macho Hemingway look like a whining benchwarmer, he’s been widely praised for his sensitive handling of such subjects as abortion and sexual identity. “Forty years ago, the most sympathetic, least intemperate character in The World According to Garp was a transgender character.”
We discuss the athlete Bruce Jenner, now known as Caitlyn. “If something positive comes out of Caitlyn Jenner’s experience and exposure, that’s a good thing. Whatever your personal level of approval or disapproval, you have to admire the courage of undertaking gender reassignment surgery. That takes a self-confidence and a self-examination that few of us are capable of.” What does he think of Germaine Greer’s claim that a transgender person can’t be a real woman? “I don’t take – and never have taken – Germaine Greer seriously. She doesn’t know what she’s talking about.”
Irving follows US politics from his home in Canada. “My theory about why so many American voters are apathetic and don’t vote is that they just get worn out, they get tired. At precisely the moment when they should be interested, they’ve had enough. I’ve already had enough. Every election I feel this way. I mean, do I really have to be this invested in the Iowa caucuses?”
Although Republican weather-maker Donald Trump was humbled in Iowa, if he has his way, the likes of Irving’s Juan Diego would never make it to the Land of the Free, because a huge wall will be in their path. “I don’t take what Trump says seriously,” says Irving, “but I am seriously worried about the number of people who are as angry, as ignorant, as misinformed or shallowly informed as he is. I feel very badly for Mrs Merkel, who I believe has tried to do the right thing by assisting asylum-seekers. It’s tragic that people who perpetrated violence against women in Cologne have caused a backlash. This is working against the heartfelt instinct to help these people who have nowhere to go and are in peril. Are some dangerous people among them? Yes, probably – but we have responsibilities.”
Irving’s own experience of the migrant life has been much happier. Although the New Hampshire-born writer now lives in Toronto, he also has a home in Vermont – two places where he can enjoy the great outdoors. When he says that Leonardo DiCaprio’s film The Revenant includes the most authentic bear-on-man action ever committed to celluloid, he knows what he’s talking about. He has come face to terrifying face with an ornery brown bruin himself, and called upon decades of ringcraft to survive the encounter.
“The bear is almost blind but one thing he will see is your eyes,” he says, in best shiver-making, frontiersman-mode. “So you must never make direct eye contact. Avert your gaze.” He suddenly transforms into a cringing courtier and adds: “Retreat slowly from the bear and allow him gangway. Above all, don’t run. A bear will outrun a horse over a short distance. They chase and kill deer. Look at the way they’re built, with a powerful upper body, like a sprinter’s.”
Somehow you can’t imagine picking up hard-won backwoods tips like these from Julian Barnes. Nor is Irving done yet with my wrestling lesson. With footwork that wouldn’t discredit the young Michael Flatley, he tips me backwards over his cocked leg and leaves me sprawled across a couch. I haven’t put so much as a hold on him. Whatever the critics say about Irving’s latest novel, the man himself is unputdownable.
Avenue of Mysteries is published by Doubleday.