John Irving reads at Mead Chapel
MIDDLEBURY — After years of wondering and surmising along with her husband, one Monkton resident was finally able to ask John Irving last week if he had, in fact, named his main character of the novel “Cider House Rules” after her husband and his father, both also Homer Wells.
Her husband’s father grew up in an orphanage in Maine, she said into the microphone in the center aisle of Middlebury College’s Mead Chapel on Oct. 13, and she was wondering if Irving had stumbled across the name during his research.
“The truth is that in the story I have one of the nurses name Homer,” Irving said.
In the novel, the nurse gives him the name of Wells, because her family is in the business of digging wells, Irving explained, and she gives him the name Homer, not because of its literary significance, but because her most beloved cat was called Homer.
“So he was, in fact, named for a well-digging family and a cat,” he said, followed by a pause. He then shrugged apologetically and added, “Sorry.”
His expression, combined with his delivery, sent the audience that nearly filled Mead Chapel into stitches of laughter.
This was just a mild example of Irving’s particular talent for combining rather depressing or morbid subjects with comedic relief.
“It’s an unstoppable instinct,” he confessed, standing by a podium just in front of the altar. “Writers who are genuinely funny are usually funny at the worst possible time. It’s inappropriate, is what it is — a tasteless joke.”
And yet, what he referred to as a bad habit has actually taken him quite far. Irving came to Middlebury College on Oct. 13 to read from his 13th novel in a long line of bestsellers and award-winning books including “The World According to Garp” and the new “Last Night in Twisted River.”
“He’s been one of those unusual literary writers who manages to garner both an academic audience and literary audience and a larger popular audience and that’s just because of the amazing narrative thrust of his work — he knows how to hold the reader’s attention,” said Middlebury professor Jay Parini when introducing Irving.
Irving certainly managed to captivate his audience as he read from work-in-progress, a novel about a young bisexual boy who falls in love with an older transsexual woman, pausing for more laughter as he went.
He began by reading the last line of the first part of the opening chapter. Whenever he begins a new novel, he explained, he writes the last line first.
“I am a plot-driven animal,” he said. “The ending is a part that won’t change. I know what voice I’m going to be in when I end.”
“‘There’s something different about them, her surprisingly girlish breasts,’ is the end line I’m aiming for,” he said.
Irving then adopted the voice of a 60-something-year-old man who is attempting to look back and embody his 12-year-old self and launched into the opening scene, which, unlike the ending, could change.
“I’m going to begin by telling you about Miss Frost,” he read. “While I say that I became a writer because I read a certain novel by Charles Dickens at the formative age of 15, the truth is that I was much younger when I met Miss Frost and imagined having sex with her … We are formed by what we desire, young boys especially.”
Irving, who has written about sexual deviance in various forms in his previous novels, tells his newest story through the innocent and naïve eyes of a boy just on the cusp of puberty.
The book begins in his light-hearted tone, full of the bemusing concerns and falters in speech of a bashful boy interacting with a woman that he desires, a woman that he doesn’t recognize for what she is until much later in the novel, according to Irving.
The author’s interest in gender issues is one of the reasons that brought him to the chapel on Wednesday evening. The college’s Women and Gender Studies department, along with others, invited Irving to read during Coming Out Week.
Irving’s reading was framed in this way by an introduction by Karen Hanta, director of Women and Gender Studies, and his own political statement on gay rights with which he wrapped up the reading and Q&A.
“Don’t vote for Brian Dubie,” he said, citing what he called Dubie’s “anti-choice and anti-gay” agenda.
What had been a calm and quiet reading was suddenly amped up into a mini political rally. Though Irving cannot vote in the Vermont gubernatorial election, he said he is supporting Democrat Peter Shumlin.
“Why do heterosexual couples care?” he asked rhetorically. “What the hell is wrong with heterosexual incumbents?”
Following his outburst, Irving returned to the subject of prescient narrators and manipulated chronologies before thanking his audience and stepping down from the podium.
In his last moments on stage, he compared his own plot-driven writing to that of 19th century English novelist Thomas Hardy, just as Parini had in his introduction. Even Irving’s readings, it seems, start right where they end.
Tamara Hilmes is at [email protected].
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