“Trying To Save Piggy Sneed” By John Irving (Arcade, 432 pp., $21.95)
‘Trying to Save Piggy Sneed,” John Irving’s scattershot but affable collection of fiction and nonfiction, is never less than opinionated.
Loves Dickens, loathes Waugh.
Learned more from wrestling than from creative writing classes. (Wrestling is a form of rewriting.)
Ingmar Bergman “was the only major novelist making movies.”
After a while, one may feel like the Wedding Guest in Coleridge, fixed by the glittering eye of an ancient mariner who has escaped from the University of Iowa writers’ program.
Irving’s strong suits are his intelligence, amiability and a vigorous sense of the absurd.
Handicapped by dyslexia, he nevertheless succeeded in graduating from Exeter Academy and in building a reputation as the author of eight highly praised novels.
Like most American writers of his generation (he is in his early 50s), he is cheerfully earnest rather than bleakly ironic, and it is no wonder that he prefers the Expressionist grotesquerie of the gifted Guenther Grass to the Art Deco grace of, say, “A Handful of Dust.”
Two Irvings inhabit this medley of six short stories and six pieces of nonfiction.
One is the serious writer and Dickens student. Of a story titled “Weary Kingdom,” about a dormitory matron, he remarks, “It was from this story that I gained a little confidence concerning how to create a minor character in the third-person voice, which is an absolute necessary ability for a writer of any novel of substance and length.”
Useful craft advice dots the author’s notes following the pieces, although you have to be a rabid wrestling fan to appreciate the remarks about wrestling.
In the commentary to “Other People’s Dreams,” he goes through a series of first sentences, all of which “eventually became the end lines of paragraphs deeper in the story.”
“Interior Space,” which won an O. Henry award and is the best of the fictions, is an example of a story that has to undergo intensive rewriting before the author perceives his actual subject.
The other Irving is immersed in the literary life of accountancy, as it were - readings, agents, celebrities, awards, social obligations, contracts.
He is no stranger, we are informed, to the top income-tax bracket. “And the economics of being a writer aren’t getting any better - except for the lucky few, like me.”
A droll anecdote about dinner at the Reagan White House falls under this heading.
So does an encounter with Barbara Bush at a black-tie event in New York; Mrs. Bush confides that Irving is one of her favorite authors.
Refreshingly astringent, however, is the late Nelson Algren, who pretends to confuse John with Clifford Irving, the Howard Hughes hoaxer.
As a rule, trivia of this sort is dispensable.
A staunch admirer of Thomas Mann, Irving meets Mann’s daughter on a trans-Atlantic flight, but the nature of the encounter is not exactly philosophical: “I had a glass of red wine with my fish; I can’t help it - I despise white wine. She continued to sip her one Scotch with her judicious selection of vegetables.” Perhaps our idols, or associations with them, should materialize with an Olympian fanfare of trumpets.
On the other hand, perhaps it is more human and democratic for them to appear as an adjunct to an airline dinner, but it does create a problem of consistency of tone.
Certainly this is the case with the title piece, a memoir about the small-town persecution of a mute garbage collector and pig farmer.
The reader is meant to feel compassion for Piggy Sneed, and to a degree the author succeeds; it is impossible to feel otherwise. But in describing the character, Irving is abrasively judgmental: “He smelled worse than any man I ever smelled - with the possible exception of a dead man I caught the scent of, once, in Istanbul.”
Instead of feeling compassion for Piggy Sneed, the reader is distanced from him, while the allusion to Istanbul destroys the mood of the small-town setting.
When John Irving is at his best, he is at his most Dickensian; that is, in tune with the emotions of his characters, no matter how eccentric they seem at first glance.