John Irving and Me

Author: Jerry Janicki


Years ago when I was going school in Iowa and happened to have John Cheever as one of my teachers, he told me that he published his first short story in The New Yorker when he was 17. I like being able to say that, as if he and I were close friends back then and regularly sat side by side in one of the literary taverns of Iowa City. Some of the other people in town those days were Raymond Carver, John Irving, Gail Godwin, Ann Birstein, Frederick Exley.

J.P. Donleavy came to lecture and was uproariously funny. Ray Carver came over to my house for dinner one time and got drunk. We were very jolly. Cheever arrived in class dressed in khaki slacks and loafers, sockless. He told wonderful stories but I hardly knew him at all. We did sometimes, as a class, meet in taverns. We smoked and drank. This was what I had in common with them. Talent was another matter.

Cheever had heart problems and 10 years later he died. But first he wrote Oh What a Paradise it Seems, which came to exactly 100 pages in the hardcover edition. The novel had that kind of lyric intensity, spareness and wit that characterized Cheever’s famous short stories. Early on the narrator, someone very like the author, quotes Yeats, “An aged man is but a paltry thing/ a tattered coat upon a stick” and then goes on for the next 98 pages to celebrate life with a joy that borders on the mystical. (The novel is also an ecological cautionary tale, but I’m writing here about a different kind of pollution, the kind we inflict upon ourselves through bad habits and outsized egos.) It seems to me, that one can write with such joy about these things — erotic encounters and the deep pleasure of ice skating on a frozen pond — only much later in life, after one can no longer manage them physically, or has become impotent, arthritic, aged and mortal. That is, when all of the rapturous experiences of one’s life have become memories, a part of one’s history. I am thinking here of a warm summer morning, very early, when a breath of air can seem as fragrant as field corn; when the exhalations of a meadow seeded with ragweed and thistle are memorable not only of themselves, but because of the youthful ardors such fragrances recall, the purity of youthful hope and expectation.

Anyway, Carver died too some years later, possibly as a consequence of his own early bad habits. Near the end, I believe he was clean and sober, but I don’t know if he still smoked or not. Maybe he gave it up. He had lung cancer. He was relatively young when he died, and he’d been doing some of his best work. I hadn’t seen him since Iowa, 1974. The point is, we were abusing our bodies and writing, it was part and parcel of the same process. In the course of time, first Cheever and then Carver became famous. I took it personally when they passed away, as if they really were old friends of mine, along with some others I had self-importantly rubbed elbows with: Exley, for one, who was often three sheets to the wind. I think Styron showed up in class once, too.

One afternoon, during a party at some novelist’s house, Exley was telling stories — which had the ring of truth — of fishing with Hemingway. Ray Carver was there with a young woman who kept impatiently nudging him. She wanted to leave; Ray wanted to hear more stories. Finally he called her a cab, we refilled our glasses, and Exley resumed his yarns. Exley was tanned, he wore a colorful turquoise shirt, and one could envision him in Key West trading tales with Papa. I chose to believe him

No matter. He’s gone too; passed on after a life of self-abuse.

A year after I left Iowa I met John Gardner at the Bread Loaf Writers’ Conference in Vermont. Outside the big barn where readings were held, after Anthony Hecht had recited some poems, Gardner turned to several of us and said the reading was so beautiful it made him weep. My first thought was that to weep over a poem was one thing, but to admit it publicly required a measure of self-confidence I would never muster. I had my camera with me and I took photos of John Irving with his first wife — Shyla, I think her name was. A few year later Gardner drove his motorcycle off the road and into a tree. Tess Gallagher was at Bread Loaf that year. We drank whiskey on the porch of the Bread Loaf Inn in the middle of the night and talked about poetry. There was a moon over the mountains. Really. We were young then.

Ultimately, I went into commerce: advertising, freelancing, fund raising, but I kept all my old bad habits. Perhaps it was my own curious way of holding on to the dreams I once had. I began to suspect that I was never a writer, not in the same way these other guys were. I was a groupie.

Gardner puffed on a pipe and had a medieval haircut, almost shoulder length and perfectly white, which matched the white Mercedes he drove. His novels were big and dense and ponderous and brooding. I loved his writing. The Mercedes was a nice touch. I was reminded that in his heyday Faulkner drove a Bugatti. Just because you wrote great literature didn’t mean you had to drive junk.

At Iowa in the early 1970s John Irving would have been in his early 30s. He was partial to long thin cigars. He used to come into class, light up, set his cigar on the edge of the table and then talk about Charles Dickens much as though they were contemporaries, as though they’d had Christmas dinner together, which, in a sense I guess, they did. He also talked a lot about Gunter Grass, who wrote large fabulous novels in which fish, sometimes spoke. His novels were fabulous in a literal, Teutonic way — the Brothers Grimm for grownups. And Grass, too, had early success. He wrote The Tin Drum, his best-known work, when he was thirtyish.

It was this math that made me uneasy. If I wanted to match Grass or Irving or Cheever or even Carver’s output (Ray considered himself a slow starter), I needed to write a big book pretty fast. More and more it seemed to me that I was squandering my shot at fame. I could mix well enough at social gatherings, though I was never comfortable doing it. But I wasn’t writing anything. In one of those afternoon tavern discussions, someone reminded me that Jane Austen finished Pride and Prejudice when she was 22, and Norman Mailer published The Naked and the Dead when he was 25. It got worse, if you looked at it too closely. “By the time he was my age,” I said, “John Keats was already famous and dead.”

“Still is,” my companion replied. We drank to them all — the living, the dead, but mainly the famous.

At the end of my career as a student at Iowa I sold a short story to a literary magazine in California. I don’t remember the name of the magazine or the title of my story. It was about a deaf teenager with a genius I.Q., who was trying to deal with the problem of deafness — or more accurately the problem of people condescending to him because of his deafness — this through a psychotherapist whose own I.Q. was considerably lower than his own. The boy was bitter and had problems certainly, but I don’t think the story deserved to be published.

For my thesis I managed to scrape together about nine short stories, several of them set in New Orleans where my then-wife and I had lived for three years before we moved to Iowa. In New Orleans I worked as a copy editor for The Times-Picayune. When I got bored with this job, which was nothing more than proofreading for typos, I started showing up for work only three or four times a week. After a couple months of this my boss took me aside and suggested that I needed to come in five days as week, same as everybody else. I was proofing obits, the cargo manifests of ships out of Scandinavia, local stories on zoning laws. Once in a while a freighter would veer into the levy near the French Quarter or plow into the Huey P. Long bridge. But mostly it was zoning laws. That was my life then. I couldn’t bring myself to do this more than a few times a week. Even that seemed heroic to me.

At Iowa I boasted that I got fired from the same newspaper that William Faulkner got fired from. It made a nice, brief anecdote at parties, and it seemed there were lots of parties at Iowa. At the first and most important of them — a cocktail party at the home of Jack Leggett, who headed up the fiction workshop, and at which I was the only rube to show up in Levis — I met John Cheever. Jack introduced us, breaking through a crowd that had gathered around Cheever like ants at a popsicle stick. Cheever said to me, “Howdya do” in that characteristically urbane eastern accent of his, and I said howdy right back, and then there was silence because I hadn’t read most of his books and I couldn’t for the life of me remember anything about The Wapshot Chronicle that would bear repeating to him. Of course I made no impression on anybody, except possibly for a woman who introduced herself to me as Mrs. Van Zant Something and whose accent, too, was quite haughty. “However did you manage to come to Iowa?” she asked me, and I responded without a trace of irony: “Oh I drove over from Indiana.”

Two years later I had a master’s degree and no prospects, so naturally I went into advertising.

Someone once wrote that your destiny is determined by multiple small choices made along the way; that each small decision inexorably narrows your fate and finally there is no turning back: Intentionally or not you have formed your life. After a few years of writing spot commercials for radio and television, I got to be thirtyish myself, and I understood acutely that I was narrowing my fate. Every week I read The New York Times Book Review and my name wasn’t listed there among the authors being reviewed. Even worse, I sometimes saw the names of people I knew, or knew of, and whose work had always seemed to me awful and amateurish.

In one case, a classmate of mine had published a novel that he had first presented to us at Iowa, a chapter or two at a time, in class. Sitting around the table, we were critical of it, no one more so than I. The book was dreadful, predictable, it lacked poetry and passion, the plot was banal beyond imagining. A few years later, here was The New York Times giving it a decent if not breathless review. How my life was going to waste!

I’d read somewhere that Faulkner had written As I Lay Dying in a scant 13 weeks. Suddenly it seemed to me a wonderful trick, and so I thought I would try it. I quit my advertising job of course. No sense being distracted by bills, family, responsibilities. I set a goal for myself, which curiously had nothing to do with plot, character or event, and everything to do with time: I would write as fast as I could and my goal was to finish in 13 weeks. I had only the barest idea of a plot — it was to be a “road novel” (speaking of banalities) about a Vietnam veteran and a photojournalist traveling together cross-country in search of . . . well, truth be told, I am not sure what they were in search of. But even though I had intended to take them southwest to New Mexico, where they would discover, I suppose, spiritual enlightenment or perhaps aliens from outer space, they got hung up with car trouble in Iowa, that dark and brooding state whose chief commodities are wheat, soybeans, corn and writers.

There they spent about 400 pages, because it was summer and the Johnson County Fair was in full swing — carnival rides and sweet corn and girls in summer dresses — and it was easy to keep them there, getting them involved in other people’s lives where they had no business being until finally one of them, the ’Nam vet, takes a bullet right to the heart, the irony being that he had spent two years in the jungles of southeast Asia among snakes and Vietcong and had survived that only to come home and get shot down in the heart of America.

At the time I was influenced as much by films as by novels, and my intention was to bring something new and cinematic to the genre. I wanted my novel, or at least the dialogue, to read the way a Robert Altman script might read (I had never seen an Altman script). That is, I wanted lots of voices speaking at once, not always in logical sequence, but with a kind of layering of meaning, so that the meaning accrued over time. Of course this had already been done before — by William Gaddis, for one, but I had never read anything by Gaddis and so I thought what I was doing was original and creative.

The important thing is I finished it in just a shade over three months, so I was right up there with Faulkner. I had a typescript with a beginning, a middle, an end. It was pretty hefty when you held it in your hand, well over 400 pages. It looked like a book. It had dialogue and narration. If you opened it at any page, at random, and started reading, you would have found yourself in the middle of a story that seemed to be going somewhere. All it really needed was a publisher.

Earlier I’d come across an article in a writers’ magazine that began something like this: “Writing a novel is easy. You just get a ream of paper and write one page a day. At the end of a year you will have a novel.” This was tongue-in-cheek advice, of course. But that’s exactly what I did — only I was writing five pages a day instead of one. Three months. Fourteen weeks, to be precise. All I needed was a publisher. So I sent the manuscript off to Alfred Knopf.

The art of writing is rewriting. But having completed so monumental a work of art, I had no patience for revision. By the time I’d actually talked to an editor at Knopf, who suggested that all the pieces of my book didn’t quite come together and some tightening would help, I was well on my way into my second novel. In fact I’d lost interest in the first book. It had begun to look artless and immature. Besides, why rewrite when there was a possibility that someone might like it just the way it was? Rather than revising, I sent it off to Viking Press and went on with my second book, which was less superficial and immature, less Faulknerian, less grandiose, less of everything, really.

There are several sources for one of the more important pieces of advice about writing that I have come across. Joseph Heller is one. John Irving another. Heller reportedly said you write even if you don’t feel like writing, even if you have a hangover and your head aches and you’d rather just stay in bed. Irving said you can’t publish anything if you don’t finish it, which was basically the same advice. He gave me this advice in Vermont, in the mountains, in a cabin that may have once belonged to Robert Frost, on a cool summer afternoon. He had built a fire in the potbelly stove and poured out a measure of Jack Daniels into two whiskey glasses. I was there to get his opinion of an early novel I’d been working on. Only about 75 pages into it, I was stuck.

“Well, I admire your women characters,” he said. “You have a knack for creating believable women.”

I was more than flattered. Imagine having John Irving admire your writing. It was a terrific compliment. “And yet,” I said in a kind of prophetic way, the sort of remark that might be used in a trailer if my life were a film, “I can’t go on with it, I’m stuck, it’s going nowhere.”

That was when he gave me a short lecture about finishing what you start. He was right in the most absolute way. The advice was spot on, I knew that. A few years later, in response to another draft of another novel — it almost doesn’t matter which one — I received a kind and helpful letter from Amanda Vaill, who was at the time an executive editor at Viking. She thought the novel was good in some places and needed work in others and by the way the writing was topnotch. However . . .

I repeated this exercise with a couple more publishers — Random House, Farrar, Strauss & Giroux — nothing but the best for me. Finally I stopped sending the manuscript out, because I’d lost interest in it, because postage got to be expensive, because the rejections were always the same: The novel I’d written was almost but not quite what they were looking for. Try us again.

Try climbing Mount Everest with a pack-a-day habit. At the very least, try rewriting. It was clear to everyone but me what I needed to do. Instead of doing it, I filed all these manuscripts in boxes in the garage. I took up the guitar as a hobby. I got steady work. Every now and then ideas would come to me. I wrote a few more short stories over the next 10 years or so. I had a couple false starts on new novels. In one case I had written some 300 pages before throwing my hands up in despair. I distinctly remember looking up a word in the dictionary and coming across the phrase, ars longa, vita brevis (art is long, life is short). Nothing more perfectly described the condition of my life and the folly of my attachment to the idea of literary fame.

So then I quite writing fiction, which was exactly the thing John told me not to do. It would be 10 more years before I quit smoking (I was 50, the same age as Ray Carver when he passed away) and two years after that before I gave up the scotch and water that was my daily before-dinner and sometimes after-dinner routine. By the way, I don’t feel nearly as good, physically, as I did at the height of my career as a hard-drinking chain-smoking would-be Hemingway. In those days, I suppose, my body was young enough to absorb such punishment. Now these old vices merely haunt me; they are like old Sirens singing to me from the far shore, and I am still drawn to them although they’ve grown shabby.

In 1985, when I heard John Irving was coming to Notre Dame for the Sophomore Literary Festival, I wrote to him, inviting him to lunch or dinner if he could fit it in his schedule. He wrote back:

_Nice to hear from you! I’m sure I’m booked very tight when I’m in Notre Dame; am not altogether sure how tight, but I fear dinner would be unlikely, and I usually skip lunch. . . . .

Why not ask the chap who’s inviting me what I’m doing for dinner the 27th? I’ll be with my girlfriend, but I have no idea what [he]… has planned for me. Why not just call him and say I asked if you could join us? … I’ve got to be talking to him in a few days, and I’ll mention it, too._

I didn’t call the chap who invited him, and we never did get together, although, like some kind of Nabokovian character (Charles Kinbote of Pale Fire comes to mind), I made a point of seeing him briefly backstage. We said hello and shook hands. He was most cordial, although he eyed me distantly, as if trying to place me. A moment later, others crowded around him and our brief reunion was over. No matter. As I think about it, we would have had nothing to say to one another. He gave a fine reading, although I couldn’t help but think: I could do that, I could write stuff that’s just as good.

I didn’t get around to trying again for five years. Then, around 1990, a scene that seemed irresistible presented itself to me. I began noodling around with this idea, creating characters and dialogue and event, and there was even a story that became interesting when one of the characters — let’s call her Jane — turns up in a field with a bullet hole in the back of her head. I was sorry to see her go, she seemed rather promising, and I was eager to find out who blew her away. But in typical fashion I didn’t plan any of this out, and soon there were motives and red herrings all over; new people kept showing up uninvited. And the original characters, indifferent to the fact that I had an unexplained corpse on my hands, began to go in their separate directions. After several hundred pages, I found I had about three different stories going, and each of those was branching out like an unpruned fruit tree.

Once again I had to stop. The thing was completely out of control. One part of the novel, set in Iowa of course, involves a minor league baseball player — let’s call him Billy — who is struck down at the plate by a fastball high and inside. Afterward he has eye problems, related to a detached retina, but in any case he develops a different kind of vision, something like clairvoyance; second sight. Anyway, the young woman who turns up murdered is the wife of the assistant district attorney. She is found in the pasture of a farmer who is the father of another young woman — let’s call her Lisa — who has become the girlfriend of the baseball player, Billy. You can see how this plotting business starts to get complicated pretty quickly.

In all events, I got through a few hundred pages of a first draft, before I realized that the sheriff had no idea who did it, besides which he had his own issues to deal with, chiefly a recent divorce that left him grief-stricken. Meanwhile the FBI special agent assigned to the case only cared about preserving his retirement pension, and though really quite a character he was useless during the investigation. The real problem, however, was that the author himself, rounding up the usual suspects, found that each of them had an airtight alibi.

So I was stuck. Too bad, really, because even if the book wasn’t making it as a novel, it had a lot of cinematic potential. Or maybe I had just been watching too much television. I don’t think about the story very much anymore, although occasionally I still wonder who killed Jane and why. I think Billy probably knows, in a clairvoyant sort of way, but he has never told me. I think about him at night sometimes, when I am insomniac, riddled with existential dread, wrestling with dark angels. I think about how he had all this potential as a ballplayer and it got wasted. It happens.

This is, perhaps, a parable. Think of the tortoise and the hare. I remember at the end of my first semester with Ray Carver I asked him how it was going, by which I meant his life, his writing. “Pretty good,” he replied earnestly. “I got a poem written.” For a moment I thought he was joking. But the remark was characteristic of him: laconic, earnest, and slightly off base. He was only half joking. It was no small thing to write a poem that one felt good about. In Ray’s case I knew it probably took him months of rewriting, perhaps even years and innumerable drafts, before he got it exactly the way he wanted it.

He was my teacher at Iowa 25 ago, but I am still learning from him.