My 'World According to Garp'

The death of Robin Williams got me to re-read The World According to Garp for the first time in several decades. I saw the movie in a theater (hip parents) at the age of 13, and after watching the movie a few times on home video, I read the book around age 16 or 17.

Back then, I was very dialed in to its dark humor. By that point, I could relate to the sexual elements (#ExplanaBrag) but had to synthesize and speculate what it was like to be in an adult relationship. The last fifth of the book is almost unrelentingly sad. The final line, which Irving said was originally much earlier in the book, then kept getting nudged throughout composition until it finally reached the end: "In the world according to Garp, we are all terminal cases." My teenage brain, as teenage brains do, may have confused feeling sad with feeling depth.

Back then, when filling out college applications that required an answer to what-book-inspired-you type questions, I cited Garp. These answers were probably embarrassingly shallow. My memory is they focused on the book making me feel like an odd sense of humor and morbid perspective were actually okay. Despite that shallow response, a couple colleges accepted me anyway. I also sent in an epic parody that was a hit in one college's admissions office, with multiple staff people giving compliments when I stopped in.

Even then, into now, I am distracted by a couple things about John Irving's image.

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My high school Advanced Junior English teacher had a poster of John Irving in wrestling gear (maybe also with protective headgear) in a badass/beefcake photo. I can't find it in online image searches, but it struck me funny: like a fitness campaign for writers with the subtext "Hey, writers! Shake off the burden of consciousness and ennui! You can exercise, too!" Like those "Read" posters featuring celebrities to encourage youngsters to use libraries.

Irving's character, T.S. Garp, is a wrestler and later a wrestling coach. Irving himself plays a wrestling referee in the movie. Later profiles of Irving during and after the campaign for the Garp movie featured a LOT about exercising. "Look at me, I'm a writer who can benchpress! And you other writers who can't or won't? Well, you should [looks writers up and down], consider it."

John Irving and Robin Williams in "The World According to Garp"

I wasn't a writer at that time, but that image and persona projection wants to nag me into exercising more. I did not start exercising because of it.

The book retains its charms over me, perhaps more, now with a few secret writing projects here and there done, fatherhood, life, all making Garp even easier to relate to than it was at the age of 17. The sentences are short and muscular. It's difficult to not think of Irving, who is short and muscular. Jenny Fields, Garp's single mother who becomes a political and feminist icon after her book A Sexual Suspect becomes part of a political movement, seemed less severely funny and more sensible to me reading it as an adult. Should I worry?

I have not read another John Irving book, and probably will not. I like Garp plenty, and cried over the Philadelphia Eagles memorial to Roberta Muldoon near the end, but it takes a lot of effort for me to read a living writer. Why? Haven't pinned that down. And I want to keep reading Garp a singular event. I will continue to read/watch interviews with Irving. And, of course, he's right to endorse exercise for everyone, including (especially) introspective creative types.