Determined John Irving kept a strict regimen to maintain 'Circus' mentality

September 18, 1994|By Newsday

John Winslow Irving, looking thuggish in a sweat shirt and bristling with a morning growth of beard, has sailed through questions about alienation, personal success and his own literary voice. But he hesitates when asked about his daily regimen.

The author says he sticks to a rigid routine at his Dorset, Vt., home, consisting of an early morning wake-up call, a day of banging away at his trusty IBM Selectric and a late afternoon workout.

So, where, the former wrestling coach is asked, does he work out?

Irving mumbles an, "I'll show you," then turns, his muscled back hiding an expression that could be pride or embarrassment. Leading the way through a bedroom, he opens a door into a wood-paneled area the size of an elementary school gymnasium. Inside is an ex-jock's dream.

Gleaming with slick newness on the floor is a bright red wrestling mat. On it rests a man-sized "throwing dummy" for practicing holds. Parked in front of a picture window that offers an eagle's view of the Green Mountains is a workout bench and assorted weights. Mr. Irving stands in the room's center, legs apart, hands on his hips.

"This is it," he says.

Isn't it, though?

After nearly 30 years of struggle, a period that included four novels written in obscurity and four turned out in the glow of celebrity, Mr. Irving is still grappling with life. The fact that he now tussles with literary questions while toning himself in a custom-designed health club reflects another truth.

No one wins life's final match. But for the moment, Mr. Irving is ahead on points.

Whether his just-released book, "A Son of the Circus," a 633-page opus that has given him fits for the last five years, will be another literary conquest remains to be seen. The work concerns a 59-year-old Indian orthopedic surgeon who lives in Canada, but returns to Bombay and becomes involved in tracking down a murderer while searching for his own identity.

"I felt more exhilarated when I finished this book than I've ever felt. But at times along the way, I also felt more overwhelmed."

Actually, watching him as he talks in his office (one of three in his sprawling, mountainside home, the other two belonging to his wife, Janet Turnbull, president of the Turnbull literary agency and a co-director of Curtis Brown's Canadian publishing division, and her assistant), it doesn't appear that the effort has taken much out of him.

Physically, Mr. Irving is one of those writers who seems to change little from one dust jacket to the next. The compact torso maintained with his daily workouts gives him the slightly menacing quality of the aging but capable athlete. His hair is grayer, but remains thick. His eyes burn with intensity.

At 52, he is the epitome of a financially secure author at his peak. The wild success of "The World According to Garp" and the acclaim of subsequent novels has made him a writer convinced that his work has a waiting and patient audience. He now is in the enviable position of being critically praised and popularly read, a situation generating a self-fulfilling success.

"And I'm happy to have the perspective of being an unknown and a commercially successful author," he says. "Whatever happens now I feel lucky."

Born in Exeter, N.H., he traveled the academic-to-novelist route, first as an assistant professor of English at Mount Holyoke

College in Massachusetts and later as a writer in residence at the University of Iowa, before his success with "Garp."

The name became a household word with the novel's publication in 1978, although its honors were limited to an American Book Award in 1980. Critics regard it as Mr. Irving's finest and most original work. Later novels were also best sellers, such as "The Cider House Rules," and two Book of the Month Club selections, "The Hotel New Hampshire" and "A Prayer for Owen Meany." "Garp" and "Hotel" were made into movies, the first starring Robin Williams and the latter with Jodie Foster.

Divorced in 1981 from his wife of 17 years, he married Ms. Turnbull seven years ago when she was his Canadian publisher -- before she became his official agent. In his office, Mr. Irving points to a picture of their 2-year-old son, Everett, which is pinned on a nearby bulletin board. His two boys by his first marriage are out West, one an aspiring actor, the other a ski patroler.

His literary reputation has been built upon comic-tragic tail-spinning, bizarre characters and unusual plot twists. Doom and irony, shocking violence and riotous humor crop up regularly. Those looking for similar turns in "A Son of the Circus," aren't likely to be disappointed. The book delves into the world of Indian brothels and orphans sold to circuses by their parents.

This is Mr. Irving's first use of a new technique -- multiple subtitles. The book's 27 chapters are broken up by 153 titles, or about one title for every five pages.

"This is the first novel where I've been conscious of my age," he explains. He used to be able to write for a couple of months before having to reread the first sections of a book to calculate its pacing, he says. With this one, considering its complexity and length, he could only continue his "forward progress" for a few weeks before having to recheck earlier writing for plot twists. The sub-chapters became memory aids. A friend suggested he should keep them to break up the thick chapters.

Despite his workaholic ways, Mr. Irving felt overwhelmed and fatigued after finishing "A Son of the Circus." He grins, recalling how he remarked to his wife and friends shortly after finishing that he probably wouldn't attempt to tangle with something this ambitious in the future.

"They all politely smiled and said, yeah, sure John."

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