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Call of the Wild

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Irving in 1980.  

Between rants against Republicans and hippies alike, Ketchum plays both godfather and political id to the motherless Danny. Prodded by journalists about why he lives in Toronto (in protest of Bush’s policies?), Danny feeds them rote political tirades about Iraq. “He was getting tired of denying it,” Irving writes. “Also, sounding like Ketchum was easier.”

Irving himself needs little prodding to lay out his politics—strong liberalism shot through with a dollop of Ketchum. Asked, at dinner, why he opposed a Vermont law equalizing education funding (at the time, he caught heavy flak for referencing “trailer-park envy”), he’s off on a long tangent about the perfidies of Howard Dean (“He’s no liberal”), Al Gore’s cowardice, anti-health-care-reform Democrats with “their dicks between their legs,” and “fucking teachers unions.” His voice rises, giving diners a hearty sampling of his unique accent: equal parts upscale Yankee and raspy bruiser. The inn’s owners, whom he thanks in Last Night’s acknowledgments, indulge him as a regular—and they’ve probably heard it all before.

In fiction, Last Night included, Irving has wisely given political rants to sympathetic but unreliable narrators, like John Wheelwright in Owen Meany. And in general, for all the stormy exuberance of his books, there’s a hard-won distance from the source material and a careful control over the plot and language—a balance that divides critics but not his rabid and numerous fans (more than 10 million copies sold, by his rough estimate). “Whether it’s a political anger,” he says, “or an emotional, sexual, psychological anger, my instinct is, wait long enough so you know the difference between the things you should still be angry about and the things I just have to let go. Also, the longer you wait, the more liberties you can take with the memoirist’s so-called truth.”

Irving’s writer friends include Michael Ondaatje, Salman Rushdie, and Edmund White, the gay writer who never met a sexual conquest he didn’t set down in graphic detail. Irving offered a rare blurb for City Boy, White’s new memoir of sexual awakening—a two-page encomium that became the book’s introduction. He says White’s novel A Boy’s Own Story is everything The Catcher in the Rye should have been (he’s not a fan of Salinger, or Hemingway, or Wolfe, or Pynchon, or most novelists after Dickens).

This past summer, Irving wrote to White about an important memory he had. “He said, ‘Oh, God, you should write a memoir,’ ” Irving remembers. “I said, ‘I can never write memoirs like you do, because as soon as I begin to like something that is autobiographical, the next thing you know, I have a novel.’ ”

What Irving had remembered was sitting in the wings of a theater where his mother worked as a prompter, watching a play from a unique perspective: “You may only have a partial view of the stage, but you know every line that everyone’s going to say.” The moment proved formative for a writer who, in fictionalizing life, stage-manages it obsessively, fixing his characters in place before he even puts down a word. Irving always knows exactly what’s going to happen, because he starts with the last sentence. He boasts that he has changed a closing sentence in only one of his novels. Asked if the term “control freak” sounds like an insult, he laughs long and hard. “Not to me!”

The scene has since worked its way into Irving’s novel-in-progress, which he might call In One Person, from a speech in Richard II. Irving sympathizes with the doomed, wordy tyrant, one of Shakespeare’s most tragic control freaks. “I always thought part of his problem is he should never have been a king. He should have been a poet.”


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