My life is kind of eat up with Kardashian-level glamour. It’s never my intention to brag about it, so please forgive the anecdote that follows.
I was at the pet store getting twenty pounds of cat food and three tote buckets of cat litter when the nice woman standing near me in the aisle struck up a conversation about herpes. I’m not apt to casually discuss herpes with strangers, but the cat litter containers are the refillable kind, and I was elbow deep in a big vat of cat litter scooping and filling. I was in a fixed position and since I was not the one who started the interaction it wasn’t up to me to choose the topics. Anyway, the woman (who was killing time while her husband shopped) was relaying the origin story of every cat she had adopted in the last twenty years. She seemed really excited about her feline genealogy, and it was nice to have the diversion from my task.
She got to the payoff, which was about the time she adopted TWO kittens at one time. See, she went to get the one kitten? And it was really cute? And she found out the kitten had a brother? And it turned out both kittens were hard to adopt because they were sick? Suddenly, she interrupted her narrative and fixed me with a hard stare. “Do you know what herpes is?”, she asked me. I was so taken aback I froze mid-scoop. I thought I had misheard her, so I asked her to repeat the question. She carefully enunciated each word, keeping it simple since I was obviously a little slow. “Do…you…know…what…herpes..is?” I affirmed I did, and satisfied, she proceeded to tell me the kittens had herpes and she adopted both of them. At this point, her husband came and collected her and off they went.
I was a little dizzy from the cat litter fumes, so it took me a few minutes to process what had happened. The follow-up questions piled up: I look like a person who doesn’t know what herpes is? Am I blithely going about my business, day after day, projecting a herpes-ignorant vibe? Is it all viruses, or just herpes? Then I got super bummed because if I had told her “No”, how would she have explained herpes to me?!? Would I have been deserving of the two-cat adoption story? Then I did what I always do when confronted with randomly absurd situations. I blamed John Irving.
John Irving has broken my heart, made me cringe, and played with my emotions. He has bitchslapped me up and down the page, but more than anything, he has shaped my sense of the ridiculous. The Irving universe is filled with the eccentric, the unusual, characters for whom boundaries don’t apply because they are already more evolved than the rest of us. The formidable Jenny Fields. Gentle, stubborn Homer Larch. The survivor Ruth Cole. John Irving takes these larger-than-life characters and has them speak to what it means to be human by placing them in the most absurd situations. Their reactions are little sloppy, a little violent, a little offensive, and always a little unexpected.
If you would like to witness some spirited, heated conversation, and possibly a fistfight, here is what you do. Get a half dozen people together, sit ‘em down at a table, and ask them what their favorite John Irving novel is. Safety tip: back away after you ask, because you pulled the pin on a literary grenade. John Irving has been publishing marvelous fiction since 1968 and as is the way of passionately told stories, people connect to them passionately. There will be lots of A Prayer For Owen Meany people. Someone will talk about Hotel New Hampshire. (Keep your eye on that person.) There will be love for A Widow For One Year. No matter what book is being advocated, it’s the funny, rambunctious, surreal scenes that will be brought up and described with delight. Like how Jenny Fields gets pregnant in The World According To Garp. Or the car castration in The World According To Garp. Or Garp disguising himself to attend his mother’s funeral in The World According To Garp. Okay, a lot of weird stuff happens in Garp, but you get the idea.
I know what you’re thinking right now: “What if I don’t look like I know what herpes is?” Don’t be upset! You probably do. But just in case you needed more proof that we are all living in a John Irving novel, here you go:
I got a bottle of fruity-smelling body oil in a gift basket during the holidays. The bottle has just been migrating from surface to surface while I work up the effort to throw it away. Recently, in a frenzy of straightening, I tossed the bottle in my nightstand drawer. The drawer is full of the usual: pens, a couple of notepads, five thousand ponytail holders, and a big loose wad of cash. A couple of days later, I opened the drawer to grab a pen and instead of finding a writing instrument with which to record my brilliant thoughts, I shoved my hand into what was essentially a pile of lube-covered one dollar bills. I had managed to knock the bottle open and it had slowly poured out, saturated the cash, and coated the bottom of the drawer. I emptied an entire box baking soda into the drawer to soak up all of the oil, then washed the bills out with soap and water. I then spread the money out over every available flat space so it could dry off.
The sum John Irving total:
My bedroom looks like someone made it rain at the world’s only OCD strip club.
My favorite John Irving book is The Cider House Rules. FIGHT ME.