Interpreting writing, a skill as illusive and indefinable as a man’s attempt to figure out a woman or a philosopher’s effort to discover the meaning of life, rests in the minds of readers, and searching for a perfect agreement about who is the best seems a futile effort. However, when examining those writers who eclipse the standard fictional template and enter into a world that delves deep into the patterns innate to human nature, a select few distinguish themselves amidst a sea of commonality. Some may argue that Toni Morrison, a writer of remarkable insight and who possesses the unique talent to take the simplest term and break it into abstract parts, gives the most refined voice in American letters. Others instead may choose J. D. Salinger, best known for his 1951 novel Catcher in the Rye, arguing that, despite the fact that he has not published any new materials since 1965, no other author has the ability to generate such intricately paced prose. From Morrison and Salinger the debate would continue, with each reader staking claim to another man or woman who should sit atop the literary landscape and be known to all as the best.
Yet, all too often when our country’s avid readers sit in book clubs or coffee shops to verbalize what they have silently ingested, they fail to address the one man, the one wordsmith, who truly is America’s best living fiction writer. Absent from both these planned and impromptu debates, John Irving and his eleven novels instead creep across the country, impacting one reader at a time, showing each the most uncompromised, vividly real depiction of humanity any writer can offer. Unlike the popular novelists currently residing at the apex of seemingly every best seller’s list, from the mom and pop bookshops on Main Street USA to the huge internet companies that bludgeon you with advertising each time you click the mouse, Irving’s works communicate a level of thought that grips the mind and forces readers to question not only the world, but also, and more importantly, themselves.
This New Hampshire native, who was originally born John Wallace Blunt, Jr. and later re-named John Wilson Irving following his mother’s divorce and remarriage, spent much of his childhood withdrawn from the crowd, something he attributes not to any level of unhappiness, but rather to a love of solitude. His appreciation for inward retreat and reflection has driven Irving into the pockets of the mind that most fail to visit, much less wish to visit. As a result, he envisions and molds characters more real than some living people, and his plots display the unexplainable paths life often provides. Unlike the paper-thin characters of many modern novelists, Irving constructs people from their very core, painting not only a memorable physical image, but also unearthing the blatant and implicit psychological aspects that make his creations ironically both dark and real.
His characters, from Owen Meany to Jack Burns, do not simply ambulate through the story, stopping every so often to make a comment or to show some admirable and desirable quality, becoming a flat allegorical statue that is both predictable and, as a result, unworthy. Rather than having his characters follow a basic plot outline, Irving writes characters that become real and undeniably irresistible, for they struggle with the same inadequacies, fantasies, and demons many humans carry with them each day. Unafraid to write the truth, Irving places his characters in inescapable moral and ethical dilemmas that riddle the conscience, bringing forth internal conflicts devoid of easy answers. In the end, his characters never walk the yellow brick road or find the pot of gold at the end of the rainbow; instead, they emerge as life-experienced representations, for they have seen, heard, and done so much of what any one of his readers has.
The solitude this author revels in permits his mind to touch base with what the common man fears, the inner thoughts of the mind that he wishes to keep locked away out of concern for what others may think of him. The intense but normal subliminal anger, the joyous but tragic jubilation, the attractive yet forbidden sexuality, and the devastating yet refreshing pain of life all contribute to a set of characters that bridge reality and fiction, all the while turning the reader inward, forcing him to consider his own fragility. And within this ceaseless search of one’s pitfalls, Irving shows the power and strength of the human mind and spirit; he spares no reader the full spectrum of human emotion, for he fully understand the time-tested need for delicate balance within all of nature.
Thematically, Irving assembles layers meant for the reader to peal away, as one may slowly turn the pages of a book, to find a personal meaning that will almost permanently resonate within their moral character. While some themes in other works feel trite and worn out, Irving’s fresh perspectives, more out of a desire to get beyond the commonplace interpretations of life many people use as excuses for what they fear, shed new light on clichéd concerns. Knowing that the characteristics in human emotion have a strikingly similar make up from person to person, his novels explore the small ravines of the human soul where the most intimate differences live, those that house a person’s individually developed system of beliefs. This is where his greatness is born.
Irving does not dilute his writing to charm to the masses, yet his work remains reachable for virtually any person willing to sit, read, and feel. His writing exists on an intellectual level that challenges the brightest reader, but gives the mediocre one a chance to feel empowered, thus making him universally appealing. No gender, age, or social role emerges untouched by Irving, as he wraps tightly the interactions between them all, understanding that human nature thrives in the gray area lurking between black and white, and comprehending that the sincerest of human struggles begins when the boundaries of normality are discarded. Any person can experience this and walk away changed.
As an uncompromised and talented storyteller, Irving manipulates the reader’s emotions by making the most difficult scenario seem outrageously comical, and then, moments later, injecting a heartbreaking element of agony, much in the same way true life often does. Irving refuses to grant the reader with any immunity, which makes his fiction semi-real and all the more relevant. Despite the literary talent that America possesses, Irving represents the greatest fictional voice we have.