Showing posts with label John Irving. Show all posts
Showing posts with label John Irving. Show all posts

Monday, August 8, 2011

Summer Endeavors

One of the benefits of living on our boat in the summer is being able to finally get to some postponed reading and catch up on local theatre either in Westport or NY and the last few weeks reminds me that so much of what we read or see in the theatre often serves as historical guideposts, snapshots of different periods of cultural change. I recently picked up John Irving’s The World According to Garp, which I first read when it was published in the late 1970’s. I’m not sure why I felt compelled to reread the novel other than I had forgotten much of it and always liked Irving’s quirky self-reflective story-telling, so much about the process of writing itself. I had forgotten how much the role of women’s rights plays in Garp, such a major issue in the 1970s. Irving playfully toys with the issue, satirizing it to a great degree, reminding me of my first business trip to Australia in the 1970’s when a Sydney taxi driver lectured me about the evils of women’s rights and, in particular, the role that Americans had in exporting those dangerous thoughts to Australia. I wonder whether Garp (or Irving) might have agreed with the accusation at the time.

Then a few weeks ago we saw Terrence McNally’s Lips Together, Teeth Apart at the Westport Country Playhouse, portraying two heterosexual couples vacationing at a home on Fire Island, in the middle of a gay community. It is a play that is constantly on an uneasy edge, the problems of the two couples acting out their aberrant behavior contrasted to the high-spirited, better adjusted gay community, off stage. But central to the play is the paranoia of how AIDS was thought to be transmitted at the time, symbolized by the couples’ dramatic fear of going into the pool (on stage) -- an obsession of twenty years ago when the play was written. Nonetheless, the play is still a compelling tragicomic drama and wonderfully staged at the beautifully restored Westport Country Playhouse.

A twenty year leap forward brings me to reading Jonathan Tropper’s Everything Changes. Here is a very contemporary novel by a thirty-something author about relationships between fathers and sons, and male female relationships. Tropper’s idiosyncratic characters (in particular, the protagonist’s father) at times reminds me a little of Richard Russo’s and Anne Tyler’s. Trooper’s writing can be very funny but sensitive at the same time. These are the two paragraphs that grab you and pull you into the novel:

Life, for the most part, inevitably becomes routine, the random confluence of timing and fortune that configures its components all but forgotten. But every so often, I catch a glimpse of my life out of the corner of my eye, and am rendered breathless by it. This is no accident. I made this happen. I had a plan.

I am about to fuck it all up in a spectacular fashion.

It was quite a contrast reading Anita Brookner’s Strangers, perhaps the most interior novel I’ve read in some time, most of it taking place in the mind of the 72 year old protagonist, a retired banker and confirmed bachelor, who feels he may be missing something not sharing his life with a woman. By chance he meets one of his old lovers (he hasn’t had many), now aged and frail, but one for whom he thinks he still has feelings. He also meets a woman on a flight to Venice, younger than he. Much of the novel is a debate (in his mind) of the advantages or disadvantages of being with one or the other or neither. Brookner’s writing is timeless, meticulously exacting, set mostly in London, but a London that seems to exist merely in some recent time. It is also about aging and finding meaning in life after a lifetime of work:

His reading now was confined to diaries, notebooks, memoirs, anything that contained a confessional element. He was in search of evidence of discomfiture, disappointment, rather than triumph over circumstances. Circumstances, he knew, would always overrule. Those great exemplars of the past, the kind he had always sought in classic novels, usually finished on a note of success, of exoneration, which was not for him. In the absence of comfort he was forced to contemplate his own failure, failure not in worldly terms but in the reality of his circumscribed life. He knew, rather more clearly than he had ever known before, that he had succeeded only at mundane tasks, that he had failed to deliver a reputation that others would acknowledge. Proof, if proof were needed, lay in the fact that his presence was no longer sought, that, deprived of the structure of the working day, he was at a loss, obliged to look for comfort in whatever he could devise for himself. His life of reading, of walking, was invisible to others: his friendships, so agreeable in past days, had dwindled, almost disappeared. Memories were of no use to him; indeed, even memory was beginning to be eroded by the absence of confirmation. As to love, that was gone for good. Whatever he managed to contrive for himself would not, could not, be construed as success.

Finally, yesterday, we saw the NYC preview performance of Stephen Sondheim’s great musical, Follies. This is a show I failed to see when it opened in 1971 or any of the revivals and have been waiting, waiting for the opportunity. Sondheim is the last surviving composer of another era. Talk about historical markers. This is Sondheim’s tribute to various eras of Broadway’s past and it has some of his best known songs, too many to mention, including one that is perhaps my very favorite, Losing My Mind.

This new Broadway production, coming via the Kennedy Center, is spectacular, the kind of show no longer written for Broadway. It was Sondheim’s first musical as both composer and lyricist and every line, every word is delicious. The Broadway production includes some of Broadway’s luminaries, Bernadette Peters, Danny Burstein, Jan Maxwell, Ron Raines, and Elaine Page. Each brings the house down with some of Sondheim’s most iconic numbers. The juxtaposition of their ghosts from eras past is particularly evocative. Here is a two and half hour production which seems to pass in minutes, portraying innocent and happier times past, lost loves, regrets and heartbreak.


Thursday, March 11, 2010

Irving Writes about Writing

In the corner of my home office is a “must read” shelf of novels and short stories, some are ones I want to reread, but most are either new titles or ones I just did not get to during my working career. While many of these I already owned, or buy used from Amazon’s affiliated vendors, I allow myself the luxury of acquiring new clothbound editions written by my favorite writers. Two such recent purchases were Anne Tyler’s Noah’s Compass and John Irving’s Last Night in Twisted River.

When I finished my last book, given to me by my wife for Xmas, a wonderful, informative compendium, Geniuses of the American Musical Theatre; The Composers and Lyricists by Herbert Keyser, I debated about my next book, eyeing that new Tyler and Irving title, among the others I had squirreled away for the “right moment.” Impulsively I picked up the John Irving novel. Not sure exactly why, as I really ENJOY reading Anne Tyler, even if she writes about the same flaky characters in their Baltimore environs. Sometimes I feel like I am one of them, an accidental tourist on the journey of life.

Enjoyment would not be my motivation for reading Irving; rather, I would call it a COMPULSION and perhaps that is why Twisted River, once in my hands, became the choice du jour. Irving’s characters are not ones I easily identify with so I follow them somewhat dislodged from the comfort zone I am normally within Tyler’s or Richard Russo’s worlds.

And, indeed, Twisted River has a panoply of larger than life characters and Amazonian or Rubenesque women, the latter including Injun Jane, Six-Pack Pam, Carmella Del Popolo, and Lady Sky just to name a few of the colorful names. And then there are the men, who are often generically referred to as, “the cook” or “cookie” (Dominick), “the writer” (Daniel), “the riverman” or “the river driver” or the “logger” or the “woodsman from Coos County” (Ketchum), and the “constable” or the “crazy cowboy” or the “crazy cop” (Carl). In typical Irving fashion, there are scores and scores of supporting and minor characters.

Irving makes me feel as if I am entering a nightmare; so from the opening pages of Twisted River there is that sense of foreboding. His writing makes me stop here and there to figure out relationships, or potential relationships, as if I’m moving through molasses at times, but he is such a superior storyteller that you are drawn in and the story itself takes over.

He paints a portrait of three generations over the last fifty years and in a number of places, Colorado, Iowa, New Hampshire, Boston, Toronto, a twisted river of American life, Irving painting one part of the picture, jumping to another part of the canvas, temporally and geographically, circling and backfilling, bringing the story back to the beginning at the very end. It is an odyssey for the characters and for the reader. As Irving and I were born in the same year, the historical background of the novel is the one we’ve both lived at the same moment of our lives. The political history of “an empire in decline” is an omnipresent part of the novel’s subliminal setting, the arrogance of power from the folly of Vietnam to the Iraqi invasion.

Many of the usual Irving themes or symbolism are here: the bears, wrestling, New England, hands (or lack of), tattoos, accidents and fate. But, of all his novels, this may be the most illuminating about Irving himself and the craft of his writing. He even describes his Cider House Rules as another work of fiction in this novel called East of Bangor.

The main character in Twisted River is Daniel Baciagalupo a.k.a. Danny Angel, his pen name for most of the novel. Danny is Irving’s voice about writing, revealing his own tricks of the trade such as the following:

Maybe this moment of speechlessness helped to make Daniel Baciagalupo become a writer. All those moments when you know you should speak, but you can’t think of what to say – as a writer, you can never give enough attention to those moments.

All writers must know how to distance themselves, to detach themselves from this and that emotional moment, and Danny could do this – even at twelve

One day, the writer would recognize the near simultaneity of connected but dissimilar momentous events – these are what move a story forward….(He was too young to know that, in any novel, with a reasonable amount of forethought, there were no coincidences.)

Childhood, and how it forms you – moreover, how your childhood is relived in your life as an adult – that was his subject (or his obsession), the writer Danny Angel daydreamed….

I particularly appreciated Irving’s attention to Danny’s experience at the Iowa Writers' Workshop. Some of my favorite writers have taught or have been taught there, luminaries such as John Cheever, Philip Roth, Richard Yates, Raymond Carver, Kurt Vonnegut and, of course, John Irving.

One of Danny’s teachers there is Kurt Vonnegut* a kind man and a good teacher. Describing Vonnegut’s criticism of Danny’s punctuation problem gives Irving the opportunity to reveal the major influences on his (both Danny’s and Irving’s) work: Mr. Vonnegut didn’t like all the semicolons. “People will probably figure out that you went to college – you don’t have to try to prove it to them.” [B]ut semicolons came from those old-fashioned nineteenth-century novels that had made Daniel Baciagalupo want to be a writer in the first place….Danny would be at Exeter before he actually read those books, but he’d paid special attention to those authors there – Nathaniel Hawthorne and Herman Melville…And English novelist Thomas Hardy naturally appealed to [him], who – even at twenty-five – had seen his share of what looked like fate to him. Danny (and Irving), says of his former teacher: Danny like[d] Kurt Vonnegut’s writing, and he liked the man, too. Danny was lucky with teachers he had for his writing….

Ketchum (the woodsman) is an idealized alter ego of Irving, perhaps the man he sees himself as being outside the world of writing, while Danny’s father (the cook), a kindly man, protective of his son, is the idealized father who Irving never met. Irving loves these characters, and the stories of all three men are so tightly interwoven we mourn their aging in the novel as if they are one.

The reoccurring themes of Irving’s novels, the vulnerability of childhood, and the inevitable loss of innocence, Irving’s pessimistic distrust of human nature are evident here as well:

Danny Angel’s novels had much to do with what the writer feared might happen. The novels often indulged the nightmarish – namely, what every parent fears most: losing a child. There was always something or someone in a Danny Angel novel that was ominously threatening to children, or to a child. Young people were in peril – in part, because they were young!”

But what was political about [his] other five books? Dysfunctional families; damaging sexual experience; various losses of innocence, all leading to regret. These stories were small, domestic tragedies – none of them condemnations of society or government. In Danny Angel’s novels, the villain – if there was one – was more often human nature than the United States.

It is well known that Irving works from the end of a story to the beginning and so does Danny: As always, he began at the end of the story. He’d not only written what he believed was the last sentence, but Danny had a fairly evolved idea of the trajectory of the new novel.…That was just the way he’d always worked: He plotted a story from back to front; hence he conceived of the first chapter last. By the time Danny got to the first sentence – meaning to that actual moment when he wrote the first sentence down – often a couple of years or more had passed, but by then he knew the whole story. From that first sentence, the book flowed forward – or, in Danny’s case, back to where he’d begun.

And so it is with Twisted River, a work that is a mirror within a mirror as it is Danny Baciagalupo who becomes its author in the end, Irving bringing together all the themes and characters in a coda so powerful that I found myself emotionally choked as I concluded the novel, especially relating to one of Irving’s culminating thoughts: Sometimes, people fall into our lives cleanly – as if out of the sky, or as if there were a direct flight from Heaven to Earth – the same sudden way we lose people, who once seemed they would always be part of our lives. It left me bewildered as to how I could have been so unprepared for such a reaction, other than being in awe of Irving’s gifts and the knowledge that we are all bobbing along on a twisted river, a circle of life.

* In my working days we had published The Vonnegut Encyclopedia, subtitled An Authorized Compendium as it had the full cooperation of the great writer himself. I had asked Vonnegut whether he might inscribe a copy to my son who was in high school at the time and already an admirer of Vonnegut’s writings. I was both deeply moved and amused by his inscription:


Wednesday, January 9, 2008

Before Consciousness

I was born prematurely and my mother spent ten days in the hospital. The bill she saved from Mary Immaculate Hospital in Jamaica, New York shows $85.00 for her room, $15.00 for the delivery room, $5.00 for laboratory fees, and 25 cents for “special medicine.” Dr. Siner’s bill for “confinement, prenatal and postnatal care” was $125.00, so it cost $230.25 to bring me into this world. This was 1942 when a new car was less than $1,000 and a gallon of gasoline was 15 cents.

It’s difficult to write with enthusiasm about something you’d like to forget. But a lot of life is about stupid choices and my high school years in particular seemed to have an abundance of those. I was a product of New York City schools, Public School 90 and Richmond Hill High School.

My early schooling was unexceptional and without much merit. My kindergarten report card revealed more about the times than me. I had high marks for posture and satisfactory ratings for cleanliness, and the ability to use a handkerchief and covering my mouth when coughing. I also displayed good working habits, showing improvement in the ability to express myself and to speak clearly. Unfortunately, I needed improvement in the ability to dress alone.

Going to and from school, walking along 107th Street to Jamaica Avenue and onto Public School 90 were social events, gathering friends for the hike. We talked mostly about vacations and the upcoming summer, plans of playing ball until dark, roaming the neighborhood on our bikes, or watching Captain Video and His Video Rangers and Hopalong Cassidy on our recently acquired DuMont TV.

For me, excelling at baseball and its variants, punch ball, stickball and stoopball, became a priority to compensate for being one of the younger kids in the neighborhood and being smaller. I learned to throw hard and accurately, throwing a baseball with my older, next-door friend, Skip, who settled behind a manhole, which became home plate. Put a rubber Spalding in my hand and I would whip it against the garage doors on 107th and Atlantic Avenue, side arm, overhead, fastball, curve or screwball, or throw it at the right angle on a stoop step for a home run.

During the first few years of schooling my most difficult “subject” was penmanship. I was one of the first generations where they no longer forced left-handers to become right-handers. Instead, we sat at right-handers’ desks but were nonetheless expected to produce perfect cursive handwriting. This problem came to a head when I nearly flunked the 5th grade because of my handwriting, but my Plaster of Paris rendition of a Mississippi river boat won awards, redemption, and allowed me to pass into the 6th grade.

One part of the summers I looked forward to was our annual two-week rental of a cottage in Sag Harbor, usually during the end of August. Mysteriously, the clouds of family conflict would clear briefly for that event and we would spend the days on Peconic Bay. There was a food shack on the beach, where we would get a frank or hamburger with salty French fries bathed in ketchup, listening to Teresa Brewer belting out “I don't want a ricochet romance, I don't want a ricochet love” on the jute box. It was in Sag Harbor where I developed a love of boating, renting a rowboat with a small Johnson outboard engine. It was also where I went through my first hurricane when Hurricane Carol in 1954 drove water into the first floor of our rental, blocks from the Bay.

I give my mother credit for buying a piano and insisting that I take lessons. I did so reluctantly and practiced as little as possible and after two years of occasional classical lessons, I was allowed to quit. A few years later, I voluntarily took guitar lessons hoping that some of Elvis’ charisma would magically materialize through me. When that did not happen, I quit those lessons too but that paved the way for learning what, at the time, was called “popular” piano – playing by improvising chords. To this day, piano is very much part of my life.

While posture, politeness and penmanship may have been the most admired childhood attributes of the post WW II era, McCarthyism, the Korean War, and the constant shadow of nuclear war with Russia lurked in the background. Frequent air raid drills disrupted our days, having to hibernate under our desks while shades were drawn, presumably to shield from the light and fallout of a nuclear blast. While this “protection” was preposterous, one has to wonder how those drills psychologically impacted our generation.

My graduation from the 8th grade and my choice of Latin as my foreign language put me directly into Richmond Hill High School instead of the “Annex” where most freshman went. I would have been better off staying with my class plus at that time we moved to another home in Richmond Hill, near Kew Gardens, leaving my neighborhood friends.

Unfortunately, I squandered the first few high school years mostly because fleeing my house was my highest priority -- anything to escape the litany of strife between my parents. In another era, my parents would have divorced, but instead they stayed together and were at constant war, with the fallout on my sister and myself.

My poor mother; she never really understood her self-imposed prison of a marriage. She was racked with guilt and rage, constantly trying to “justify” herself in the eyes of my sister and myself. Who was “right” and who was at “fault” obsessed her (and, in a more passive way, my father as well). Her letter to me, written soon after I graduated from college, shows her ongoing misery. It is a deeply sorrowful letter, but I share it below as it ties together much of my youth.

My solution was to disappear, onto the subways of New York, into sports, to my neighbors, out on the streets, or setting pins at the bowling alley of a local men’s club. I finally fell in with the “wrong crowd” – a group of kids who were hell bent on destroying their lives in some way.

One of them, Paul, was my best friend during my early high school years. He was a rebel with a James Dean aura. In later life Paul became a psychedelic artist. His road to that distinction was paved when he first learned to carve simple tattoos into himself using India Ink, graduating to having professional tattoos injected all over his body. He and I would go off to a Coney Island tattoo parlor on the subway for those. For some reason, I hesitated doing the same (probably because it was painful). When I read John Irving's haunting and enigmatic Until I Find You I couldn’t help but think of Paul.

We were members of a small “gang” along with Livio and John. Livio’s parents had a small shed in the back of their house, which we turned into a clubhouse. There we smoked, drank and did other stuff our parents would disapprove of; when we finally got caught we built an underground clubhouse in Forest Park, near the railroad tracks where we could hide and continue our antics.

It wasn’t until Paul’s tattoos were “discovered” by his parents (they were under his clothes, never exposed) and John got into trouble with the law that the clubhouse started to disintegrate. Finally, as a junior in high school, I was free of that influence.

Luckily for me, a “new kid” on the block moved in around the corner at about that time. Ed did not go to my school but instead commuted to Brooklyn Tech. His family had cultural values that were new to me. Whereas most of my generation worshiped Elvis and the like, Ed was into Frank Sinatra and jazz. I’ll never forget the first time I heard his recording of Ahmad Jamal at the Pershing playing But Not for Me. I called him “Ed Cool.”

I grew up in a household where most of the books were the Reader’s Digest condensed version, along with a collection of zither music on vinyl 78s. We never went to the theatre but instead watched TV, Milton Berle’s Texaco Star Theater, Sid Caesar's Show of Shows, and The Ed Sullivan Show. So, I found my own voice and cultural interests through others. In fact, having now escaped my “clubhouse” friends, I befriended neighborhood kids who excelled at school, Ed, Bud, and Ken, and adopted their families.

Bud lived immediately next door and we played on the same church basketball team. We also threw a baseball until dark during summer days, or we would shoot hoops at the backboard over his garage door. He was one grade ahead of me, and he was allowed to drive his father’s T-bird. That opened new geographic as well as social vistas. Bud and sports had a steadying influence at the time.

Ken was an honors student who lived in an apartment house up the street. We watched Sputnik on his rooftop and shared the sense of wonder that accompanied that feat. Little did we realize at the time how much that would change our lives.

By my senior year, I made honor classes in literature and economics (still, may favorite interests). For the first time I also became active in high school activities, becoming one of the school yearbook photographers, using the same Speed Graphic camera my father had during the war. With that camera I prowled the halls like a professional journalist. I began to date and finally had a social life. Judy and I danced to the Theme from Summer Place.

Unfortunately, by this time my three somnambulistic years of high school resulted in a mediocre scholastic average. That, combined with my parents parochial outlook towards schooling left me with few choices for college.

In fact, the “plan” was not to go to college at all. After all, no one from my family other than my Uncle had gone past high school. My father favored my going into the army to learn more about photography so he could ultimately pass on the family photography business (see:

The 1960 Archway yearbook entry reveals much about my limited outlook: “Bob, a member of the Union Cong. Basketball team…most pleasant experience will be graduating…holder of 2 attendance certificates…favorites – H.G. Wells, Yankees, English, all sports…hopes to become photographer. Next stop: Army”

Nonetheless, at the twelfth hour I convinced my father that if I went to college, I could still learn what I needed about photography on the job (as I did during my many years of working with him during the summers). Between my grades, my parents’ reluctance to send me out of state, and my late application, I was accepted on probation as a business major (from which I switched to psychology and eventually literature) at Long Island University in Brooklyn. I commuted there for my first year by subway, worked during the summers, and used my earnings to finally move into the dormitory the second year. That began a new chapter in my life.

October 21, 1964

Dear Bob,

Last night’s conversation with your Father gives me an opportunity to finally explain something to you.

I hope you are aware of his everyday twisting, exaggerations and distortion of every subject and everybody. I hope you are aware, as you saw last night, that he always needs a defender when he has a family discussion or fight. I was put on that telephone last night to back him up; if you recall, you or your sister were always called for help when we had a discussion or fight.

I realized after getting on the phone that I should not have, because I was the one who always ended up having a fight with either you or your sister when I never started it.

I realized after getting on the phone and the recalling of the fact that he did forbid you to continue with the club, and you, of your own effort did so, but later thanked him for having the interest to forbid you.

Your Father’s remembrance of the smoke filled room took place when he helped you boys move the radio and phonograph combo down to the club, but since he is so prone to distortion and exaggeration, this vision exists in his mind as the day, HE flew bodily down to the club and broke it up to teensy weensy bits, took you bodily out and closed up the shack like a GI catching the Gestapo. Pray tell I’ve heard the story enough.

I silently gave you the credit and was happy your Father took the initiative.

I know you don’t want to go further but I hope you read further; I should once in my lifetime be able to explain how his behavior has affected us all.

Your Father has been a good provider and doesn’t spend on “wine women and song.” A lot of men are good providers. But I am reminded daily of this day in and day out.

Do you remember when you children would say to me, “Oh Mommy this cake or cookies or dinner is delicious” and was reminded by him that if it wasn’t for the money he gave me, you wouldn’t have the cookies. The attention then focused upon him – oh isn’t Daddy wonderful, completely pushed me out of the picture and no one gave a damn how many hours it took to make this treat.

When I brought clothes for you children – and I did buy you nice things once – and wanted to display them to your Father at night, and have you go over the thrill of owning them – we were reminded again that if it wasn’t for the money he gave me, you wouldn’t have the clothes.

Your teeth were fixed because he gave you the money; not because I faithfully every six months took you both there. I worked at being a Mother. That WAS my job.

The birthday parties, the Christmas parties and all the other things I did to the best of my ability only existed because your Father gave me money. Little can you Father see that no matter what, I would have given these things even without his money.

Little by little I began to withdraw from doing the things I loved to do. I baked less, I shopped less, I took less interest in the type of clothes I bought for you both. I wouldn’t show them to him. It gets to a point when you get no credit, you don’t give an ounce of care.

When I screamed for credit I was told, “who are you”.

I was brainwashed into “who are you”. Confusion reigned until I realized I didn’t even have the respect or love of my children.

Confusion reigned until I didn’t know how to chose friends anymore. No matter who they were, good, bad or indifferent, they were bums. I was even called a bum by one of my kids.

Perhaps you don’t recall during your high school days you were brainwashed with “who are you” and “what the hell do you know.” You can’t convince me that your high school work suffered from lack of brains; it only suffered from your feeling of nothingness pounded into you by the same brainwashing I received.

We start on your sister now. “Who are you and what the hell do you know,” was her daily message too.

I lost my ability to fight anymore and tried escaping listening to “who are we”.

You rose above all this garbage and did a great job at college. Your Father will take credit for that too. I only hope your sister will do it too. I know she will.

Love, Mom