Books TREASURE AND TRASH

Two new novels - one sensationally good, the other just sensational.

What really knocks me out,” says Holden Caulfield in Catcher in the Rye, “is a book that, when you’re all done reading it, you wish the author that wrote it was a terrific friend of yours and you could call him up on the phone whenever you felt like it.” Holden wants to call up Isak Dinesen, Ring Lard-ner, and Thomas Hardy. I’d settle for John Irving, whose new novel, The World According to Garp (Dutton, $10.95), knocks me about as far out as I’ve been lately.

Garp is first of all an engrossing narrative. Plot matters; as you read, the pages turn themselves, the outside world dims. The world of the novel is profoundly comic, full of people who are exaggerated but credible. The World According to Garp is more than sheer story, though. Enormously sympathetic to women and aware of their problems (especially the horror of rape), admiring of their strength and capacity for love. Garp is well on the way to being a feminist novel written by a man. Something prevents it: Irving’s insistence on the complexities of experience. These strong women have a capacity for violence as great as for love. Helen, Garps wife, accidentally emasculates her lover with her teeth; Jenny, his mother, engineers her own impregnation by a terminal case; Hope, the victim of a brutal rapist, retaliates by stabbing, disemboweling, and slashing the throat of her attacker. Perhaps the “Ellen Jamesians” are the most violent women in the book. To protest the crime against Ellen James, an 11 -year-old girl who was raped and whose tongue was cut out to ensure her silence, the Ellen Jamesians voluntarily cut out their own tongues.

The real Ellen James grows up to be horrified by these self-mutilators and to write an essay. “Why I’m Not an Ellen Jamesian.” Irony piles on irony when she is then attacked as an anti-feminist. “I’m not an anti-feminist!” she writes to Garp. “They make everything so black and white. That’s why I hate them. They force you to be 1ike them – or else you’re their enemy. I wish I could talk.” But she can’t, so she becomes a writer, one of a number in the book, including Garp himself.

On the third and most interesting level, The World According to Garp is a novel about writing novels – about the difficulty of settling on anything so narrow as “a view of life” in order to write about it. Within Irving’s tale exist other tales, written by Garp at various points during his literary career. Garp’s first story, “The Pension Grillparzer,” is a jewel of a piece which Irving has called his own best story, and the first chapter and synopsis of Garp’s fourth novel, The World According to Bensenhaver, show that fictional book to be a parody of the work in which it is contained, which is Irving’s own fourth novel.

In these ways Irving playfully yet deliberately raises the question: How close is Garp to Irving? In some respects, very close indeed. They were born the same year and both grew up in New England prep school towns. They are both wrestlers; each lived for a time in Vienna, each has written four novels, each has a wife and two children. But Irving has refused the label “autobiographical writer” by saying, “I make up all the important things.” Thus he martyrs Garp by killing him off at Christ’s age of 33, which Irving reached three years ago.

To Garp, the novelist is “a doctor who sees only terminal cases” for “in the world according to Garp, we are all terminal cases.” But the last chapter, after Garp’s death, asks, “Is there life after Garp?” And indeed there is, two generations of it, rich and energetic. The world according to John Irving is a splendid creation.



The success of Scruples (Crown, $10), which is now in its fifth printing and out with 200,000 copies, convinces me of the essential trashiness of American popular taste, my own included. A Literary Guild selection, soon to be a television mini-series, Scruples is not really a novel, but a production. Written by Judith Krantz of Cosmopolitan, copyrighted under Steve Krantz Productions by her filmmaker husband, Scruples is the story of an opulent Beverly Hills boutique called Scruples and the people who own it, run it, and shop in it. All of these people are beautiful. All are rich, or briefly and glamorously poor. All are well dressed, even the poor ones (in little nothings whipped up at home). All have fantastic sex lives.

Like the super hype it is, the book came to me in its own shopping bag emblazoned “Scruples.” Reading it, one steps into a setting from Vogue or Harper’s Bazaar and becomes intimately acquainted with the gorgeous, gaunt-cheeked dolls who live there. There’s nothing seamy in the whole book except the constant dressmaking and an occasional villain, clearly labeled “fat dyke” or “degenerate pervert.” Everyone else is adorable, but adorable in different ways – red-haired and hot-tempered, blonde-haired and arrogant, dark-haired and inscrutable. A more dishonest, absurd book has never been written.

Why then did I spend an entire weekend gobbling down its 474 lettuce leaves of pages, stopping only once in a while to wince or laugh at the campiness of it all? For the same reason, I defend with deplorably rumpled dignity, that Cosmo is the best-selling magazine in Dallas: It caters to our fantasies.

In indulging these, Scruples has no scruples. Apparently neither do I.



Meanwhile, closer to home, two Texas writers have interesting works on the shelves. Shelby Hearon’s fifth book, A Prince of a Fellow (Doubleday, $7.95), retells the usual fairy story with certain modern innovations: “I am a frizzy-haired washed-out princess looking for a prince. Some ordinary prince on a limping horse, to carry me off to his leaking, rented castle, to share his beans and salt pork and lie beside him in his bed. No one special; after all, I am nothing fancy.” The witty, wry, cynical but hopeful voice of this thirty-year-old Central Texas princess, star of a smalltown radio show, is the best thing in the book, and very good indeed.

The worst thing is the same voice laid on other characters, especially the prince, so that far too many dialogues in this slight love story sound more like monologues.

Shelby Hearon has an exquisite sense of timing and understatement, and a poetic ear for the nuances of speech. No one else writing in Texas sounds quite like her. But in this book all the good guys do.



Admirers of Bill Porterfield from Channel 13’s now-defunct “Newsroom” show will appreciate a new collection, A Loose Herd of Texans (Texas A&M, $10), of some of his newspaper and magazine pieces, written over the last 25 years. The stories are uneven in length and quality, but the introductory description of Texas is remarkable for its affection, comprehension, and fine writing. Texans, says Porterfield, resist reduction and cliche. It “would be inaccurate to hold up the redneck beside the cowboy and the millionaire as a symbol of the new Texas. We are too diverse a people; we simply dwarf, in numbers and subtlety, that exaggerated and grotesque trinity.”

Then he goes on to prove the truth of what he says with portraits of salty and unpredictable Texas characters, such as the miracle-working defense attorney Percy Foreman, or Don Pedrito, the Mexican curandero. Most memorable of these portraits is “Uncle John,” a piece which reads like fiction; in it Porterfield expertly pulls together the mood of America during World War II, the traumas of adolescence, and the landscape of rural Texas.

“Uncle John” and several of the other pieces were originally published in D Magazine.

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