Irving's latest: Dense, weird, welcome

September 28, 1994|By Michael Harris | Michael Harris,Los Angeles Times

No, there aren't any bears or wrestlers in John Irving's eighth novel, but even without those signature marks of his early work, his fans will feel at home here. His countryless characters don't, though. This book has orphans and doctors and writers, a whole circus full of animals, irony and sexual ambiguity galore. It has humor. It has violence. It has Mr. Irving's usual crowded, Dickensian universe and, if not World War II itself, the moral equivalent.

For Mr. Irving is a moralist. This is clear now, though it wasn't always. Perhaps the times were to blame. When he first came on the scene, most other young writers, even the angry ones, were celebrating what had been considered deviant behavior. Mr. Irving, with his strongly original voice, his love of the grotesque and a sexual frankness equal to any, could easily be mistaken for just another celebrant.

His debut, "Setting Free the Bears" (1969), begins with two Viennese students roaring off into the countryside on their motorcycles. They could be the madcap heroes of a Jack Kerouac or a Tom Robbins story -- with one difference: This is Europe, not America. About halfway through, something much darker and heavier seeps into the novel. It's Austria's Nazi past; it's the three-way fratricide in neighboring Yugoslavia that set the stage for that former country's current bloodletting.

"The World According to Garp" (1978) was Mr. Irving's breakthrough novel. One reason is that it features his first truly admirable hero. "Garp" also was the novel in which Mr. Irving let himself go. It's bigger, zanier, more complex and more daring than its predecessors. To the credo "less is more," Mr. Irving has said: "More is more."

"A Son of the Circus" gives Mr. Irving's talents new room to maneuver. Why go to all the trouble of setting a 633-page novel in India? Because India, with its opulence and poverty, its child laborers and prostitutes, its caste system, its leftover flourishes of the British Raj, is the most Victorian of modern countries. Its teeming background makes Mr. Irving's convoluted plot seem natural; its obdurate foreignness let him research all the facts he wanted without risk of slipping into ordinary realism.

The hero, Dr. Farrokh Daruwalla, is a 59-year-old neurosurgeon who was born in India, has a Viennese wife and lives in Canada. He returns periodically to Bombay to take blood samples from dwarf circus clowns -- ostensibly for a genetic study of dwarfism, but in fact because Indian circuses and Bombay's elite Duckworth Club are the only places on Earth where he feels at home.

Then an elderly golfer is murdered at the Duckworth Club. A note found on his body threatens Daruwalla's adopted son, John, a movie star notorious for playing a sneering policeman, Inspector Dhar. The Dhar films -- for which Daruwalla secretly writes the screenplays -- have offended many people in Bombay, but it soon becomes clear that the murderer is a serial killer, the bodies of whose first two victims Daruwalla examined in Goa some 20 years before.

Meanwhile, John's twin brother, Martin Mills, arrives in Bombay as a Catholic missionary. Separated at birth by their American actress mother, they are unaware of each other's existence. Like John Wheelwright, the narrator of Mr. Irving's "A Prayer for Owen Meany," he is a virgin; he is a holy fool, always bleeding from some mishap or other, who believes in doing good and won't let the immensity of India's problems stand in his way.

There is a lot going on in Mr. Irving's expertly dovetailed and foreshadowed story.

There is the effort by Daruwalla, John and a real police inspector, Patel, to trap the killer; there is Daruwalla's search for a home, for a faith -- his Anglicanism is wavering -- and for an artistic vocation; the twins' encounter with each other and with the truth about their parents; and nearly everybody's fumbling over sexual identity (the possible choices in India are more numerous than here, it appears); and there is an attempt to do some specific good by getting two children -- a lame beggar and a prostitute -- jobs in a circus.

"A Son of the Circus" offers a satisfying mix of evil and goodness pursued in different ways -- Daruwalla quietly, Mills spectacularly, Patel coolly, professionally. Indeed, this is a three-ringer of a novel: lions, chimps, elephants, vultures, acrobats, dwarfs, transsexuals, "eunuch-transvestites"; slapstick, smoke and sequins; miracles real and bogus; art intertwining with life; AIDS, drug dealing and mutilation; heartache and heroism; enough faith for the lame boy to try "skywalking" upside-down across a tent roof 80 feet above ground. It's no wonder Irving chose to write about circuses, because they turn out to be the perfect metaphor for his books: Under the Big Top, more always is more.

BOOK REVIEW

Title: "A Son of the Circus"

Author: John Irving

Publisher: Random House

Length, price: 688 pages, $25

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