I’m going to start with a metaphor. We’ll have to see how long I can carry it for.
Reading John Irving is like having your mom do your laundry for you.
Okay, how far can we take this.
For one, Irving, and though I’ve read a couple of his pieces, I’m going to stick with The Hotel New Hampshire here.
So maybe it should be: Reading The Hotel New Hampshire is like having your mom do your laundry for you.
It’s neat & folded — Irving is a master storyteller. He’s almost too good at the literary conventions of bringing something up (a metaphor, a mantra, a detail) and having it reappear later in a seemingly innocuous way. He plans. He folds. Things are not arbitrarily thrown around. There is not a sock in the middle of a few t-shirts.
In THNH, for instance, we get the Berry family, all seven of them, each with their quips, but those fold so neatly into each other. The whole family knows the same sayings — “keep passing the open window” — and everyone seems to have their perfectly fitting take on each situation. The nuances almost come to be normalized and by the end, each person has found their fitting end. Irving makes sure of it.
it starts messy — the character’s nuances may come to be predictable at times, but it doesn’t start all easy like that. The book dives into strange forms of homosexuality, rape, incest, blindness, prostitution and, although barely, anarchy. Of course, that’s on top of the usual literary staples — death, love, loss of innocence. As with all good laundry, this batch is pretty wild before it hits the machine. Full of spunk, dirt, sweat, and well, any other substance that make its way into a hamper. In TNHN, we’re guided a narrator in love with his sister, obsessed with weightlifting and curiously incurious about exploring sexuality because of point one there. He’s surrounded by writers, suicides, blindness, bears and, well, somehow makes sense of it. See below
it gets the best treatment — this ain’t your corner laundromat. This is mom’s house. She’s got all the good stuff. Good detergent. Fabric softener. Color refreshers, stain removers, a good lint catcher. Everything. Those clothes have never seen such good days. Which is kind of how Irving gives us, John, our narrator. He may be surrounded by a story of stable lunacy, but it all works out and along the way Irving gives you that great treatment. Literature, languages, advice from disappearing shamans, some one-liners to remember, more than a few moments that completely break your heart, and enough hints of the future for you to contextualize the book’s present. It’s a nutty family in the hands of a most capable author.
it’s warm, but just for a minute — see note about the moments that break your heart. Early character deaths. Favorite character deaths. Blindness. Sadness. It’s a warm story of a family staying together, loving each other, helping each other go through the worst of the worst, but it fades. Like your favorite blue shirt.
Okay, starting to lose the metaphor.
I’ll leave it there. The Hotel New Hampshire had two reviews I had before I picked the book up. One called it a farshot and nothing was believable. The other said that if you suspended belief you should suspend your heart too, since its twists and turns were sure to break it.
Both were true.
Is it Irving’s best? No. Garp was better and I still haven’t read much more. But this is good. And it’s lengthy and break-up-able as you read and yes it will break your heart. But you’ll come back to it after it does. After all, mom isn’t going to always do laundry. Take the chance while you can get it.