Domesticated Madness

BY BENJAMIN DEMOTT

THE HOTEL NEW HAMPSHIRE by John Irving. Dutton, $15.50.
IN 1960, THE BOOK of the year in academic literary circles was Leslie Fiedler’s Love and Death in the American Novel. It claimed that our authors are obsessed with darkness and the grotesque, disinclined to represent adult heterosexual love or normal familial relationships, and bent on producing a literature that’s fundamentally “nonrealist, sadist, and melodramatic.” This was a sensible thesis, on the whole, but, not astonishingly, one can think of writers whose work doesn’t support it. The last two novels by a bright new star on our fictional scene, for instance, announce a possibility that Love and Death fails to imagine, namely that of conjoining, in a single literary work, the grotesquely dark and the sunny and solid—everyday middle experience of the kind once described as “safe as houses.”
The novelist in question is, of course, John Irving, author of the best-selling The World According to Garp and of The Hotel New Hampshire. Irving came to notice With a book strictly observant, as would have been remarked had the work won more readers, of several Fiedlerian specifications: Setting Free the Bears (1968) is about two young males larking around Mitteleuropa on motorbikes, loving and leaving girls, becoming increasingly involved with each other, and committing themselves to no project longer-termed than that of raiding the Hietzinger Zoo, in Vienna, for the purpose of releasing caged animals. Two other novels preceded Garp, neither breaking new aesthetic ground. With Garp came revelation. That book’s bravura array included several of the goriest scenes (a rapist carved to death in the act by his victim, for instance) yet contributed to our letters. But immediately adjacent to those scenes stood chapter upon chapter of domestic trivia—kitchen duty, kidwatching, and one wholly treasurable passage in which an anxious parent dares to observe, secretly, the performance of another parent to whom he has entrusted the care, overnight, of his young.
The Hotel New Hampshire builds on this unusual foundation. In essence it’s a family chronicle—a tale of generations of parents coping with children and siblings coping with each other. The chief parents are Win and Mary Berry of Dairy, New Hampshire, a couple brought together after high school at a seaside resort where, on summer jobs, they catch a glimpse of a joyous vocation (innkeeping). The Berry union produces five spirited and amusing children: Lilly, who becomes a successful novelist (her subject is childhood); Frank, who becomes a literary agent; Franny, who grows up to marry a black pro football player; John, the book’s narrator, whose passions include jogging and weight-lifting; and Egg, the youngest child, who’s killed in an accident at the age of seven. The story covers a quarter-century, beginning round about 1940, and the principal action takes place in three hotels, each called—for insufficient cause, I think— The Hotel New Hampshire. (The hotels are situated in New Hampshire, Austria, and Maine.)
Family dailiness—traditional sitcom material—is in nearly constant view throughout the novel. Father and mother tell stories about their youth to their children. Grandfather teaches grandson his special athletic skills. Mother intercedes when older siblings try to force their juniors into premature knowingness. Mother speaks out against slovenliness. (“Your room, Lilly,” Mother said. “What am I going to say about your room?”) Children tease each other ferociously, engage in fistfights, learn to work together in the family business, learn to drive cars, learn forbearance, find their affection for one another strengthening over time. And toward the end, children are seen taking up parental roles, caring for the elders whose hour as nurturers and protectors has begun to fade. Four of the eight family members with whom this book begins are gone at the end, but the survivors are close-knit, and a new Berry baby is on the way, assuring the continuity of the generations.
Simple, unsadistic stuff. But, as I’ve hinted, it’s conjoined with matter remote from everyday, and the combination creates surprising narrative rhythms and a sharply distinctive tone. The Hotel New Hampshire is structured as a succession of shrewdly prepared explosions of violence, each of which blends the hideous and the comic, and projects a fresh length of story line that hisses forward into the next blowup almost before the dust of the last has settled. A typical sequence runs as follows: Franny Berry is gangraped by members of a prep school football team on Hallowe’en; on the same day, her father, Win Berry, takes the family pet, an ancient Labrador named Sorrow who is dear to Franny but troublingly afflicted with flatulence, to the local vet to be put to sleep. Conscious of his fearfully violated younger sister’s need for the comfort of her pet, Frank Berry races to the animal hospital in hope of saving the beast. He’s too late, but he does recover Sorrow’s body, and, having earlier learned taxidermy in a biology course, resolves to stuff the dog and offer it to his sister as a gift. New narrative fuse lit and burning, obviously, and explosion is imminent. It occurs a chapter later, on Christmas Day. Stuffed and mounted in an “attack” pose, hidden in an upstairs closet, Sorrow suddenly springs out at Grandfather Berry when the latter, working out with weights in his room, accidentally knocks open the closet door:
. . . before I could get my breath back and tell my grandfather that it was only a Christmas present for Franny—that it was only one of Frank’s awful projects from down at the bio lab—the old [man] slung his barbell at the savage attack dog and threw his wonderful lineman’s body back against me (to protect me, no doubt; that must have been what he meant to do) . . . [and] dropped dead in my arms.
The rape-taxidermy sequence shuttles swiftly between the farcical and the pathetic. Franny Berry’s anguished weeping is in our ears as we watch her brother push the stiffening dog’s body into a trash bag (the vet’s wife murmurs, “It’s so sweet”). We jump cut from Franny’s shattered effort to convince herself that her assailants haven’t really damaged the “me in me” to a series of one-liners exchanged by brothers discussing dog-stuffing. (Brother John: “I don’t know if Franny will like that.” Brother Frank: “It’s the next-best thing to being alive.”) We’re never in doubt of Frank Berry’s sympathy for his sister’s suffering, but the gags superimposed upon this sympathy do contort it. And comparable contortions abound elsewhere in the book’s action. The primary moment of catharsis occurs when the Berry children, with aides, manage to terrify the rapists’ ringleader with a brilliantly staged threat that he himself will be raped by a bear. The book’s narrative crisis occurs when Father Berry handily smashes (with a Louisville Slugger) a ring of terrorists in the Austrian Hotel New Hampshire who are about to blow up Vienna’s opera house and take the Berry family hostage. Always, the sympathy and solidarity of the family members are in evidence—qualities placing the Berrys firmly in a world of light and affirmation. But often the visible deeds and spoken words verge upon the violently sadistic, or the black comic, or the melodramatically grotesque.
And the author’s taste for incongruity affects characterization as well as action. Each of the Berrys is normal in his or her feeling for parents and siblings—loving, concerned, loyal:
“. . . we aren’t eccentric, we’re not bizarre. To each other,” Franny would say, “we’re as common as rain.” And she was right: to each other, we were as normal and nice as the smell of bread, we were just a family.
But it’s a fact that the Berry kids don’t invariably sound “normal and nice.” On the first page of the book, one child speculates to another about the precise date when their parents “started screwing”; from then on the children’s sprightly R-rated obscenities decorate virtually every paragraph. Nor can it be said that these folks are untouched by deviance. Franny Berry is, for an interval, caught in a lesbian love affair. She and John Berry are in love with each other and consummate their incestuous passion in an extended sexual bout. Frank Berry is an out-of-the-closet homosexual given to expressions of glee in his aberrancy. Lilly Berry is a suicide. The entire family, furthermore, thrives on exposure to ills of the public world that more conventional families labor to avoid. Day in and day out in Vienna, the Berrys deal not only with a gang of terrorists (resident on one floor of their hotel) but with a sly, dirty-talking circle of prostitutes (resident on another floor of the place). They’re beset both by racists and by enraged victims of racism. They’re even obliged to learn how to handle the media. (Lilly Berry’s fans, hyped into a condition of hysterical idolatry, are infuriated with her relatives for their unwillingness to cooperate in establishing her as a secular saint.) If, in short, the quality of the children’s sense of fun and feeling for each other stands forth as “normal and nice,” neither the children’s environment nor their individual natures quite warrant those labels. Nightmare and sunshine simultaneously, once again.
A fair question about this pairing is: What’s it for? Does juxtaposing the quotidian and the melodramatic—the normative and the eccentric, the healthy and the sadistic—offer much besides shock value? Doesn’t it become merely confusing? John Irving’s triumph in his last book was traceable, I believe, to the brisk ingenuity with which he dispatched these doubts. Garp, as will be remembered, is in part about a novelist and his audience—a novelist plagued, like most, by readers whose interest seems sometimes to derive exclusively from curiosity about whether his stories are autobiographical. The most horrible episode of rape and murder in the book is presented as a chapter of a novel written by T. S. Garp shortly after losing a beloved child in an automobile crash. As one reads the episode, one isn’t merely titillated by the grisly and forbidden; one is shown, dramatically, how a writer transforms personal experience into an achieved imaginative narrative that, despite being complexly rooted, in every detail, in “real life,” is remote from any set of actual happenings. Graphically depicted sexual encounter becomes, through elegant indirection, a lesson about art and its sources, a means of access to a father’s inexpressible grief, and an instrument capable of reconciling totally opposite modes of feeling.
I confess I suspected that this feat— the purposeful linking of the normative and the perverse or hateful— couldn’t be brought off a second time, but I was wrong. Less bloody than Garp, The Hotel New Hampshire nevertheless is rich, from start to finish, in incongruous juxtapositions, and it offers genuine pleasures. I don’t pretend to know all of Mr. Irving’s secrets, but I’m fairly certain about one of them. Early in the book the reader is nudged into noticing resemblances between the narrative proceedings at hand and those of a fairy tale—the only literary form that has ever satisfactorily tamed the horrible. Half-magical attachments between human and animal creatures (men and bears) hold our attention from the start. John Irving reflects time and again on dreams, wish fulfillment, happy endings. And in the touching final page, he steps forward to acknowledge that he and his reader have been living in a “fairy-tale hotel,” spinning wish fulfillments: “We give ourselves a sainted mother, we make our father a hero; and someone’s older brother, and someone’s older sister— they become our heroes, too. We invent what we love, and what we fear. There is always a brave, lost brother—and a little lost sister, too. We dream on and on: the best hotel, the perfect family. . . .” Guided by the narrator, we intuit that this work (when the grotesque heaves into sight) is not only about the unbearable but about our instinct for refusing the unbearable— not only about the worst of life but about our capacity for willing away the worst. That intuition does much, throughout, to soothe our unease with contortions and contrarieties.
We’re also soothed because a good deal of the worst in The Hotel New Hampshire really is willed away. A few dread events in the story—a plane crash, a blinding—are irreversible. But, as it turns out, they’re exceptions to the book’s rule. Brother and sister fall in love and sexually embrace—but their embrace is a means of canceling the memory of the cruel rape: before the end Franny Berry transcends her incestuous passion and her lesbian attachment, and gives herself fully to marriage, procreation, health. Frank Berry, self-absorbed homosexual, is led out of his enclosure into the sunlight of selflessly generous relationships with both siblings and elders. A young woman once so convinced of her ugliness that she went about the world in disguise is helped to discover her beauty, arrives at a positive view of herself, becomes the means through which John Berry conquers his infatuation with his sister.
And as it goes with individuals, so it goes with impersonal forces of negation. The racism and sexism that stalk the opening chapters bow in shame at the conclusion. Blacks and whites come together in harmony that is rooted in perception of their shared humanity. The brutalizing rapist Caliban who attacked Franny understands that he too must alter his ways. And—highly impressive utopian accomplishment—the terrible energy of rape comes to seem less real, less momentous, than the infinitely loving, patient process by which a rape crisis center brings about, in the abused, the rebirth of trust. We occupy, in other words, a world wherein nearly everything comes out as we should like, the formal and psychological sequences moving from tragedy to comedy, from despair to hope. And, to repeat, because we begin to feel, close to the start, the inevitability of that fairytale progress, the intermingling of destructive and nurturing elements just escapes the taint of arbitrariness.
AN EXCEEDINGLY DENSE and clever work, in sum. Conceivably it will provoke attempts—full of humorless posturing outrage, as fatuous in their way as philistine panegyric—to prove the author to be a dollar-maddened opportunist. Writers who seem intent on having their art both ways (Let’s see: How about a good salty mix of The Waltons and Genet?) are often spanked as opportunists. But that line seems wrongheaded to me. John Irving’s love and squalor please us precisely because his authorial presence seems unsmudged by baseness—innocent, cheerful, bouncily energetic, at times incoherent, but always beyond reach of exploitative meanness.
This isn’t to say that every objection to The Hotel New Hampshire should be discounted. I found a certain frailty in the book’s emotional life; feelings such as terror, lust, and ressentiment need powerful invocation to be persuasive, and the author’s charm and jokey offhandedness—his very fascination with his eye for incongruity—conspire to muffle and miniaturize them. (Grief at the loss of parent or child disappears from the page almost before its weight can be imagined, like an effortlessly cleaned barbell.) I also find the preoccupation with rape, here and in Garp, disconcerting. And although the novelist Garp is explicit in warning us off from reviewers who utter such phrases, I’m obliged to declare that John Irving doesn’t strike me as a writer of significant intellectual depth. “Everything is a fairy tale,” says the narrator of The Hotel New Hampshire confidently, and I can think of several greatly admired texts (one of them is Heidegger’s famous Hölderlin essay, contending that poetical fancy is the foundation of our being on this earth) that develop closely related themes. John Irving, however, seems far more comfortable with obliviousness —with our incapacity for seeing beyond the self-endorsements of culture, class, and enclave— than are the subtlest minds who have celebrated imaginative power. And, for me, his books’ frequent allusion to Scott Fitzgerald only underlines the fact that the example of that writer’s moral penetration has been missed. Irving’s work brings to mind lesser heroes— J. D. Salinger, Kurt Vonnegut, the Beatles.
Like those performers at their best, this author is playful, tender, ebullient, by turns silly and sweet. And, most important, he has within him a strong idealizing tendency, which, at an hour when nothing is more conservatively chic than despising the ideal, deserves regard as precious. His one-man struggle to make the novel safe for—or at least hospitable to—domesticity isn’t, I grant, a mark of genius; neither is his effort to persuade us that people caught in the muck of habitual obscenity—or aberrancy or phony liberation—truly want out. But at their core both efforts are kind and sane as well as funny and diverting: everybody smart will know enough to wish them well.