One of the most conspicuous features of our present culture is that we are subject to the most severe inhibitions regarding the use of force. For the intellectual class, with its various dependents and hangers-on, the use of violence for the preservation of the social order is for all practical purposes never legitimate, and if it should be attempted—these people usually succeed in convincing themselves—it will not work. On the day the British naval task force set forth for the South Atlantic in the recent Falkland Islands war, the first paragraph of the lead editorial in the New York Times announced that it was a “lesson in the occasional futility of modern armament.” The editorial asked, “Once this menacing armada arrives, what precisely is it to do?” As if to back up the case that military force would not work, the same newspaper’s London correspondent raised the possibility that the Argentines (whom he seemed to mistake for Iranians) might take Falkland Islanders hostage and kill them, if required, in order to forestall a British invasion. When things began to go badly for Argentina, and the Argentines called for a cease-fire—as nations have a tendency to do when they are losing in a military conflict—the anchor man of ABC’s Night Line showed sharp displeasure at Sir Nicholas Henderson, Britain’s ambassador to Washington, for his unwillingness to accept such an evenhanded, peace-loving solution, informing him emphatically that “all wars have to end in a negotiation.”

But of course all wars do not end in a negotiation. In fact very few wars end in a negotiation in midstream, with the issues yet unresolved. There is such a thing as victory. One would have thought that the most cursory glance at history from Carthago delenda est to Appomattox, to Dacca, Cyprus, Kampala, and Ho Chi Minh City would have led the thinkers of ABC and the New York Times to realize that wars—repugnant though this might be to their moral sensibility—customarily end with one side or the other winning.

Most of the nation’s commentators slide comfortably in and out of this pacific mode, and they slide out of it particularly easily when the force is being exercised by one of the peoples designated as the oppressed of the earth. But with their qualms, and unhistorical warnings, and sometimes quite desperate clutchings at straws to condemn military action by a Western nation, they are—as far as their own country is concerned—functional pacifists.

When it comes to force used against criminals, lawless elements within our own society, the case is equally clear. On a recent television panel, a law professor told two enraged law-enforcement officials in the smuggest terms that “we cannot expect more humane behavior from criminals until we behave more humanely toward them.” This is not the sentiment of the American people, of which the police attitude is far more typical, but it is absolutely endemic in the educated classes. It is all about us in the culture. Examples are everywhere. We live in a society whose intellectual leaders feel a guilt at using force to defend their interests that is an anomaly in history.

Now there is a psychological law according to which, when a large part of human behavior is repressed, it will bubble up elsewhere, usually in some other form. I owe to Geoffrey Gorer the notion that it is the decline in the religious belief in eternal life that is responsible for the tremendous upsurge in the popular culture—and this for many decades now—of crimes of sudden death. In the 19th century, novelists did death scenes from “natural” causes (i.e., from disease or old age) in lavish detail. They were true virtuoso pieces. These scenes were intended for audiences that believed in the immortality of the soul. When this belief withered, the contemplation of the moribund flesh of a mortal man became unbearable, and deathbed scenes disappeared from popular novels, to be replaced with death by bang-bang, which, since it was not most people’s expected lot, was more remote and consequently more acceptable, even exhilarating. Death by bang-bang in the popular arts reached such a crescendo as to convince many American intellectuals that we live in an extraordinarily “violent” society, whereas all statistics indicate that the level of violence in America, despite steeply rising crime rates, is in actual fact still quite low compared with some other parts of the world. The people of India, for example, which with its gurus and its swamis enjoys such a pacific international image, live amid everyday violence of such promiscuity that they find the subject quite unremarkable, and incidents of daily mayhem are simply not reported in the press.

But if death by bang-bang has remained a prevalent strain in Amercan popular culture, to judge by mass paperback thrillers and television police series, what has there been in the way of vicarious violence for America’s educated classes—which, in my view, would seem peculiarly in need of it? The great Westerns are gone. The great gangster movies are gone. These days a new twist would be required: perhaps a new high serious-comic style that by its infectious wit would make amputation, lacerations, mutilations, and even emasculations simply hilarious. I am suggesting that The World According to Garp is the thinking man’s Tom and Jerry.


John Irving’s bestseller has now been made into a major movie, starring Robin Williams, directed and co-produced by George Roy Hill, and scripted by the ever fashionable Steve Tesich. But first I must return briefly to the novel to give a feeling of Irving’s literary style. The first chapter, 31 pages long, is the story of how T. S. Garp came to be. Its pages are taken up with what playwrights call “exposition.” Garp’s mother, Jenny Fields, is from a wealthy Boston manufacturing family. Her two brothers go to Harvard, but Jenny, because of an odd Puritan strain in her character, quits Wellesley to become a nurse at “Boston Mercy Hospital.” Jenny, in addition, is something of a sexual prude. There are many signs to tell us we are in for some unrealistic fun, such as Jenny going about day and night in her white nurse’s uniform, but the merriment really begins on the bottom of page six, when Irving tells his first joke. Hospitals are often known by shortened versions of their names and Boston’s Peter Bent Brigham hospital is apparently known as “Peter Bent.” So when a man, staggering and his face purple with pain, hails a taxi, crying, “Hospital! Hospital!” the cab driver replies, “The Peter Bent?” “It’s worse than bent,” the man moans. “I think Molly bit it off!”

Now this is not a very funny joke. A bent peter is not a plausible reason for an emergency visit to a hospital, nor would the man misunderstand the cabdriver in this sense. Nor, in the normal course of events, do women performing fellatio frequently bite off the male member. On the other hand, the joke serves as an introduction to Irving’s obsessional interest in mutilation, particularly of sexual parts—one of his hallmarks—and to a good deal of detail on the afflictions to male genitals which Jenny Fields encounters in the course of her nursing. In the early days of World War II, when our story starts, male genitalia of gonorrhea patients were treated in Jenny’s hospital with a sulfa drug, while those afflicted with syphilis were treated with a variant of arsenic. As a general tonic, it appears, 100 cubic centimeters of water were forced up the soldier’s penis and urethra by a device known as the “Valentine irrigator.”

With this to set the tone, we now have Jenny Fields, all dressed in virtuous white, as the object of sexual advances by a soldier in a Boston movie house. He touches her knee. “Get your stinking hand off me,” she says. (Gamy language from respectable and even prudish people is another Irving mannerism.) The soldier continues with his advances, so Jenny unsheathes a medical scapel and lays his arm open to the bone from shoulder to wrist. In subsequent sparring she attempts to slice off his nose, but only succeeds in removing part of his upper lip. A merry irony in all this is that Jenny’s mother is convinced her daughter is promiscuous and keeps sending her douche bags, first nine, then many more. We lose count, but are treated to a jolly douche-bag scene. Then we segue into providing a father for Garp with an entertaining section on all the hideous war wounded who are being brought into Boston Mercy Hospital: the burned, the faceless, the paralyzed, the imbecilic. Garp’s father, we learn, was a ball-turret gunner in a B-17. His predecessor had been crushed to a pulp when his plane crash landed with its ball turret unretracted, causing the squadron adjutant, when he saw the remains, to vomit in his jeep. Garp’s father was not noticeably luckier, catching a piece of flak that turned him into a drooling idiot. Here again someone vomits, this time a medic. But the wondrous thing about Technical Sergeant Garp is that, despite his imbecilic state, and his constantly deteriorating physical condition, he is blessed with “especially large erections” and spends most of his time masturbating publicly, on one occasion to a “reassuring seal-like chorus” of men cheering him on.

The match of the frigid, sex-hating Jenny Fields and the drooling sergeant with the large erections was truly made in heaven. Because Jenny, you see, while determined to keep to her rigorously independent, austere, sex-free, man-free life, wants a baby. She is not aware of her opportunity at first, contenting herself with offering the idiot sergeant her breasts to suck as. a pacifier and helping him masturbate with her “cool, powdered hand” (odd things for a priggish woman to do, but I suppose that’s life). The scene in which Jenny decides to copulate with the sergeant, who is sinking fast, is artfully set. In the bed on one side of the ward is a flamethrower victim, slippery with salve. He has no eyelids and appears always to be watching, but is blind. On the other side is a soldier who has lost his rectum and lower intestine and is constantly urinating and defecating. “Goddamn shit!” he cries as Jenny mechanically straddles the idiot’s large erection. “Good,” says the idiot as he “shoots up inside her as generously as a hose in summer.” The soldier who has lost rectum and lower intestine thereupon snarls, “Piss!” Soon the imbecilic sergeant dies and his son, T. S. (for Technical Sergeant) Garp is born, with, as his mother puts it, “his own goddamn name.” Thus does T. S. Garp come into this world.


This is a fair account of this distinguished novel’s first chapter, although a mere summary cannot hope to convey the lightness, the gaiety, and the delight with which these events are related in the book. It is also a fair indication of the general flavor of the book, which provides us with an endless stream of mutilations, rapes, maimings, agonizing deaths, hideous accidents and operations, physical deformities lovingly dwelt on, and bodily excretions of all sorts copiously detailed. In one example among hundreds, Garp’s mistress, a motherly fifty, with him now nineteen, has had removed by surgery her vagina, breasts, much of her digestive tract, and her rectum. Garp soon joins in the spirit of the thing himself and wishes he could arrange a maiming as “a kind of moral lesson” to malefactors. He, becomes a writer, like John Irving, and writes a novel called The World According to Bensonhaver, the climax of which is a rape for which the victim avenges herself by calmly cutting her aggressor’s throat (“she heard a sound like someone sucking the bottom of a drink with a clogged straw”), and disemboweling him, covering the rapee with “gallons” of “blood and bowel,” the blood “fountaining” over her, the bowels “emptying.” But, alas, blood coagulates. “Everything that was slick was turning sticky.” Another lesson in life, perhaps.

The reviewers said that The World According to Garp was “joyous,” “designed primarily to entertain,” and “rich and humorous” (New York Times Book Review); that we should study it “with laughter, with excitement”; and that “the imagination soars.” The bowels empty, but the imagination soars.


The debate as to who is the auteur of a movie is still simmering quietly along. George Roy Hill, Garp’s director and co-producer, has known both the commercial heights and the commercial depths of Hollywood, from Butch Cassidy and the Sundance Kid and The Sting to the recent syrupy fiasco, A Little Romance. He is responsible in an overall way for the picture we see on the screen, for the “visuals,” the editing, the casting, to a degree for the shaping of the performances, for the picture’s “look,” its stress and timing. For Garp he was required to compress immensely, find “equivalents.” But his style is sufficiently respectful of the original work (not necessarily a bad thing) that I would no more consider him the “author” of Garp than of the movie version of Kurt Vonnegut’s Slaughterhouse Five, which he also directed. Garp’s screenwriter, Steve Tesich, has also had his ups and his downs, his biggest up being Breaking Away and his biggest down Four Friends, an ode to the 60’s, in which the hero, having experienced the fears and miseries of American capitalism, finds true love and happiness as a steelworker. (An abrupt and embarrassing flop in the U.S., where it disappeared in days, Four Friends has been a triumph in Europe, where Hollywood’s anti-capitalist or anti-American films have recently found their biggest market.) But I have seen all of Tesich’s movies, and seen or read all of his plays, and do not find his hand much in evidence in Garp. So, in The World According to Garp, we have a movie the principal responsibility for which I, at least, am perfectly prepared to lay at the door of the author of the original novel, John Irving (who, coincidentally, is a close personal friend of Kurt Vonnegut).

Live flesh-and-blood actors performing away on judiciously exposed and edited film stock exist in a completely different medium from that of characters on the printed page, and a way had to be found of transposing to the screen Irving’s “life-loving” humor, which abides in the book in his abundance of light-hearted narrative detail: the defecations, Urinations, vomit, mutilations, bodies smashed to jelly, and all that. Glenn Close, who plays Nurse Jenny Fields, Garp’s mother, had to come up with something. The story of her own fertilization, which she recounts in dialogue early in the movie, she delivers in a pedantic, punctilious, schoolmarmish manner: the sergeant’s “permanent” erections, his cretinousness and physical deterioration, her sober opportunity. I suppose it is possible to make a pedantic manner seem funny, but I have never seen it yet in a movie, and it is not funny here. Robin Williams (Garp), a stand-up comic best known for playing Mork in television’s Mork and Mindy, shows the classic failing of comedians called to do serious drama when he attacks the serious, “human” aspects of his character: he is sentimental. For the critics who found the film “warm,” Robin Williams should take all the credit. There was a problem of transposition here, too. The book’s admirers have felt that Garp is a positive, loving character, engaged in a search for sanity in an insane world. Williams’s solution to this problem of portrayal is to be human, to feel. The result is mush.


In the film as in the book, Jenny Fields becomes a nurse, and raises her son, at the “Steering Prep School for Boys” (Irving attended Phillips Exeter). There young Garp discovers an enthusiasm for wrestling, writing, and Helen (Mary Beth Hurt), the wrestling coach’s literary daughter. On graduation, mother and son set off for New York to embark on literary careers, he as a small-audience “quality” writer, she, to everyone’s surprise, as the author of a gigantically successful autobiographical book called A Sexual Suspect, which makes her a public figure with a mass following—but only among women. Now we know that Jenny Fields is against “lust,” and we can infer from her life that she believes in female independence, wants to work, and is not exactly in need of male company. But she is presented as a wholesome, “healthy” woman, she is admired by her son, and what she has put into this book of hers to make her the adored idol of vast multitudes of frenzied feminists is slightly mysterious. When Garp visits his mother on the inherited family estate on the New Hampshire coast, he finds the house has been taken over by a particularly fanatic cult called the Ellen Jamesians, after Ellen James, a young girl who was raped and had her tongue cut out so she could not reveal the identity of her attackers. These women, a somewhat angry lot, have all cut out their own tongues in protest.

Now the notion of thousands of women cutting out their own tongues is just a teeny bit repulsive, or, in any event, does not make me laugh. It is also not particularly logical, even symbolically. There can be no doubt that the Ellen James cult, like much else in both the film and the book, was suggested by the current, powerful feminist movement. But this movement, to my knowledge, has never been notable for self-immolation. Its punitive drives are directed entirely outward. So if the Ellen James cult is intended as some kind of light-hearted spoof of feminist excesses, it simply does not work. (In this book we are treated to a full description of the horrible stump that remains in these women’s mouths, with the black stitches “like ants” where the tongue used to be. If this is satire, it is too sophisticated for me.) Another of the female eccentrics that Garp finds firmly established in his mother’s household is a certain Roberta Muldoon, who before the amputation of her (his) penis and various other plumbing alterations was Robert Muldoon, a tight end for the Philadelphia Eagles. Roberta is played by an excellent actor named John Lithgow, who stands six-feet-four, does an absolutely first-class drag act, and is about the only thing I enjoyed in the movie. Transsexuals, however, are not feminist militants, and would not be drawn to the leadership of a Nurse Fields. They have little envy and resentment directed against the male gender, a condition which they have after all voluntarily abandoned.


But along with the goings on of Jenny Fields and her transsexuals and Ellen Jamesians, we are shown, in parallel, the story of her son, the writer. Garp marries Helen, the daughter of the wrestling coach, and they settle down in suburbia and have two children. She supports the family by teaching English at a nearby college. He stays home, cooks, takes care of the kids, and writes. He commits adultery. She commits adultery. But she commits adultery more ornately, performing fellatio on one of her students in a parked car just as Garp comes smashing into the car from the rear, causing her to bite off the student’s penis. One of their children is killed in the crash, and the other one loses an eye, so it is really very amusing. But soon Garp and Helen are emotional about each other again, loving, warm, forgiving, forgiven, laughing joyfully and affirmatively at life, trying to save their sanity in this insane world. When Robin Williams is emotional his face gets all red and swollen, very unpleasant to look at, the kind of thing at least you don’t have to see when you read a novel.

In the last phase of the film the two stories intertwine. Garp becomes so indignant at the antics of these Ellen Jamesians that although warned they are dangerous, he writes a book attacking them. Surprise event: his mother, attending a mass political rally, is assassinated by a male anti-feminist. Her feminist supporters take charge of her funeral in such a strong-armed manner that Garp is forced to wear women’s clothes and to attend the funeral incognito, and is almost lynched when discovered. But a woman gets him in the end anyway, gunning him down as he coaches a wrestling class. As the film ends, Garp is being helicoptered away to a hospital, chattering cheerfully in his life-affirming way about “flying . . . flying. . . .” When the credits roll, a large part of the audience probably wanders out, uncertain whether Garp has been murdered or not, perhaps not even thinking about it. In the book, in any case, there is no ambiguity: Garp is good and dead. Is he the victim of woman’s inhumanity to man? Is this an anti-feminist movie? We shall see.


John Irving’s prime spiritual ancestor, for all his evident reading of recent academic novelists, is beyond any question the sick joke. But the heyday of the sick joke was a quarter of a century ago, the 50’s, the Eisenhower years, and it was of course not a joke at all. It was not really intended to be funny (no more than a “practical” joke). A successful sick joke was greeted not with mirth but with a kind of country-boy hooting, as if to say, “Boy, you are one mean son of a bitch.” (A true, period sick joke was: “‘Mommy, why can’t I go outside and play?’ Answer: ‘Shut up, cripple, and deal.’”) It was an essentially masculine game, competitive, boastful. It was not saber-rattling but a kind of callousness-rattling. It was unintelligent, vulgar, and humorless, but it was the answer to Henry V’s solemn prayer, in Shakespeare, on the eve of Agincourt: “God of battles, steel my soldiers’ hearts.” The purpose of the sick joke was to demonstrate that the speaker was tough, hardbitten, lean, and mean, that nothing could shock him—qualities of which people were proud in those days, believe it or not, as they are the qualities usually needed in order to prevail, and sometimes even to survive. It was a period of totally unprecedented American ascendancy, expansion, and assertiveness in all areas. Massive amounts of foreign aid were going abroad and many other worthy and generous enterprises were undertaken. But it was also the period of the cold war. Memories of Pearl Harbor, Midway, Anzio, and Normandy were still vivid. The picture of the world was that it was a dangerous place. And we were in a fight. Hearts were like rock.

The replacement of Eisenhower by Kennedy did not produce any noticeable softening (Vienna, Berlin, the Cuban missile crisis), but as the 60’s and the 70’s wore on, the most extraordinary sea change overtook America’s educated classes. Whereas in the 50’s young university graduates had prided themselves on being “tough-minded,” “hard-headed,” and other such terms, their successors prided themselves above all on being compassionate, tolerant, humane, “feeling,” “caring.” Honorable as these traits may be, the shift was so radical and far-reaching as to bring about, in some cases, a sharp divorce from reality, and even a virtual paralysis of the will where strong action might be required for our society’s benefit. And now along comes John Irving, peddling the exact same kind of sick joke that members of an earlier generation never really laughed at, but hooted at, to show they had strong stomachs and steely nerves. But graduates of the new generation, who live in an imaginary world—which if it were not for some pointless obstructions would be totally kind, gentle, and giving—are so removed from understanding the harshness in life that they are giggling spontaneously, helplessly, and irrepressibly at The World According to Garp. But in order to keep cruelty funny it is necessary also to keep it unreal, which a novel can do more easily than a movie. Which is why I expect that the film of Garp, severely toned down though it might be, will be somewhat less successful than the book. It is not everyone who will laugh at a child who has lost an eye, even when he lost it in the same accident during which his mother bit off a student’s penis.


But there is more to Garp than cruelty, scatology, mutilations, and narcissistic mannerisms. It is swimming from one end to the other in sexual inversion. Garp is a contented house-husband. While his wife works, he cooks and keeps house. He is more devoted to the children than she. His one ostentatious claim to masculinity is his wrestling—of which more later. Nurse Fields, Garp’s mother, has obvious masculine attributes. I would have described Glenn Close’s performance as “mannish,” and Mary Beth Hurt’s playing of Garp’s wife as “sexless,” but I find checking back in the novel that Irving himself has described Jenny Fields as having “a mannish way of walking,” as well as possessing “rump and hips so slender and hard that, from behind, she resembled a young boy.” Garp’s wife, Helen, moreover, is described as having “small, tight” thighs, “hard hips and small breasts,” and “very thin lips,” and as being “as slender and almost as tall as a young tree . . . taller than Garp by two inches or more.”

In Garp, women built according to the more conventional female model, with large breasts and that sort of thing, are almost invariably ugly or disfigured. A piece is missing from their lip, their forehead carries a pitted scar, or at the very least they have a speech defect. Garp’s neighbor in suburbia, a Mrs. Ralph, is described thus: “Her large, downpointing breasts shine—they slouch across her freckled chest as she leans back on her elbows and burps. . . . Her pubic hair is wet and glistens at Garp; her belly, furrowed with stretch marks, looks as white and parboiled as if Mrs. Ralph has been under water for a long time.” When Garp makes a hospital visit to his mistress who has had her vagina removed, he pops a cherry into his mouth. This is what makes it all humorous. I don’t think I will be accused of going beyond the evidence if I consider Roberta Muldoon, the former Philadelphia Eagles tight end, another example of sexual inversion. (Note the “tight end,” repeated time and again in the book.) Garp is compelled to dress in women’s clothes in order to attend his mother’s funeral. The Ellen Jamesians’ hatred of men is so pathological as to suggest that they, perhaps, might want to be men. (In another of Irving’s novels, when a man has an operation on his penis, it is sewn up with the same ant-like black stitches as these women’s tongue stumps.)


But if heterosexual sex is described in Garp with no enthusiasm, occasionally even placed in a quite disgusting setting, the most beautiful bodily encounters take place during the wrestling matches. Here taut, young, male bodies struggle, lithe limb against lithe limb. The terminology is sexual: “coupling,” “bucking twosome,” “rape.” In the movie’s penultimate scene, with Garp, as wrestling coach, presiding over the gymnasium, this male holy of holies, filled with ardent, young “coupling” men, it is a berserk female woman who suddenly erupts amid all the masculine splendor and shoots him down. Now you can draw your own conclusions.

It will seem contradictory to some, but not to others, that John Irving is hell on penises. An altogether disproportionate number of his maimings are directed at genitals, but far more at male parts than at female. If Garp opens with details of the “Valentine irrigator,” The Water-Method Man, another Irving novel, opens with the hero having a glass rod forced up his penis. The whole book is about a man with an ailment of his urethra, for which the “water method” is the proposed cure, but it fails and leads to a penis operation. In Garp two penises are amputated, only one under anesthetic, and penis amputation is in the air on several other occasions. In Irving’s work, penises come in for terrific punishment.

As for Irving’s stand on feminism, I gather that it is generally perceived to be equivocal. After all, despite the Ellen James cult, Garp is Irving’s hero, and he is a happy house-husband, doing the cooking and cleaning while his wife works. Fair is fair. A woman film critic for the New York Times, while writing that Irving appeared to be simultaneously ridiculing and embracing feminism, congratulated the movie for its “graceful” way of bringing to life both the “fiercely feminist” Nurse Fields and the Ellen Jamesians, “who are more or less her disciples.” This critic, who considered the novel of Garp endearing and “whimsical,” found the film “gentle” and even more charming than the book. I find Garp neither endearing, whimsical, charming, nor gentle, and would approach the question of Irving’s feminism or anti-feminism somewhat differently. I would alter the phrasing. Irving either changes women into boys or does quite frightful things to them. I do not think he likes them very much. He does frightful things to men, too, of course. But there you have it. That’s what all this loving of life comes to.

It was a posh lot that made this movie. Film-makers are going to fancier and fancier schools, as are some novelists. George Roy Hill graduated from Yale. John Lithgow graduated from Harvard. Steve Tesich, although born in Yugoslavia, was a graduate student at Columbia. Irving, of course, graduated from Phillips Exeter Academy, no doubt some years after Gore Vidal, before studying as far afield as Vienna. I know nothing of Irving’s private life other than what is in the publicity handouts or has appeared in the press. He has said he has only three things in common with Garp, wrestling, writing, and being a family man, but I assume that this is now down to wrestling and writing since I read in the public prints that he has just abandoned his wife and children in Putney, Vermont, and moved to New York. Irving appears to make much of being a “New Englander,” apparently meaning he feels he embodies some of the region’s values. I am from Massachusetts myself, born there of parents born there. In my wife’s case, this goes back more than 300 years. But I do not recognize New England in the work of John Irving. I defer, however. I defer. Perhaps it has all come to this.

See Joseph Epstein’s perceptive essay, “Why John Irving Is So Popular,” COMMENTARY, June 1982.

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