Yet, like Ahab hunting his white whale, Irving has spent decades hunting absent fathers through his fiction. His novels were launched by the “fear” he felt on becoming a father himself, at age 22, when his first wife, Shyla Leary, whom he had met when they were both students, gave birth to the first of their two sons. . He tells me he felt “overwhelmed” by his children’s vulnerability and began to see the potential for tragedy around every corner. He had to unload accidents and fatalities somehow, and so he did it with a pen.
By the time he published his groundbreaking fourth novel, The World According to Garp in 1978, the father stuff had begun to expand Irving’s imagination to its full bizarre and tragicomic potential. In the novel – which became an Oscar-nominated film, starring Robin Williams – the protagonist’s mother, Jenny, was a nurse who became pregnant with a severely brain-damaged army veteran she cared for. .
In Irving’s 2005 novel, Until I Find You, the hero finally discovers his missing father in a mental institution. The story was made before Irving learned that his own father was bipolar and had been hospitalized. He told The New York Times: “As difficult as it was to hear that my father had been mad, it confirmed what I had imagined about William Burns, the father in the novel. I thought, ‘Oh my God! I understood well.'”
In The Last Chairlift, Irving’s latest writer-protagonist, Adam, has no idea who his father is. His mother is a brilliant alpine skier, named Rachel, named after the ship that saved the hero from Moby-Dick. Like so many of her female characters, Rachel (nicknamed “Little Ray”) is a dynamic and sexually unpredictable presence. She’s being cruelly judged for sharing a bed with her little boy, and Irving wants to tell me that he thinks it’s part of a wonderful intimacy. But then she gives her son his first real kiss in that bed. And it is deeply troubling.
“Well, there must be something that takes you to the Greeks,” laughs Irving, rolling up the sleeves of his plaid shirt. “If Ray didn’t sometimes go overboard, she wouldn’t be Ray. She was a competitive runner. She pushes him. It has an independent sequence which must be contained. I want my readers to have a hunch that she will do almost anything.
But if Rachel kissing her son muddies the moral waters of the novel, it’s a confusion we can also trace back to Irving’s own childhood. When he posted Until I Found You, he began to speak publicly about how, at the age of 11, he had been sexually abused by an older woman. In this novel, the hero, whose mother is a famous tattoo artist, is also abused by an older woman as a child. It is impossible to read her books without asking questions, both about this older woman and about her mother. “Of course,” he nods. “Of course. It’s only human.