by John Irving
What’s it about: The short, raucously funny life of writer and wrestler T. S. Garp, from his birth to single parent and reluctant proto-feminist Jenny Fields, to his legacy, both literary and familial, beyond his violent death.
Why should you read it: because the novel switches between tragedy and comedy in an instant, leaving you laughing one minute and breaking your heart the next.
Filled with examinations on life, gender, sex, violence and literature, this book was instrumental in my own developing reading sensibilities, showing me that literature could be about real life. One of my top ten all timers.
Just beware of the Under Toad!
From the first chapter:
"In the theater, it was not her purse that the soldier wanted. He touched her knee. Jenny spoke up fairly clearly. "Get your stinking hand off me," she said. Several people turned around.
"Oh, come on," the soldier moaned, and his hand shot quickly under her uniform; he found her thighs locked tightly together--he found his whole arm, from his shoulder to his wrist, suddenly sliced open like a soft melon. Jenny had cut cleanly through his insignia and his shirt, cleanly through his skin and muscles, baring his bones at the joint of his elbow. ("If I'd wanted to kill him," she told the police, later, "I'd have slit his wrist. I'm a nurse. I know how people bleed.")
The soldier screamed. On his feet and falling back, he swiped at Jenny's head with his uncut arm, boxing her ear so sharply that her head sang. She pawed at him with the scalpel, removing a piece of his upper lip the approximate shape and thinness of a thumbnail. (I was not trying to slash his throat," she told the police, later. "I was trying to cut his nose off but I missed.")
Crying, on all fours, the soldier groped his way to the theater aisle and headed toward the safety of the light in the lobby. Someone else in the theater was whimpering, in fright.
Jenny wiped her scalpel on the movie seat, returned it to her purse, and covered the blade with the thermometer cap. Then she went to the lobby, where keen wailings could be heard and the manager was calling through the lobby doors over the dark audience, "Is there a doctor here? Please! Is someone a doctor?"
Someone was a nurse, and she went to lend what assistance she could. When the soldier saw her, he fainted; it was not really from loss of blood. Jenny knew how facial wounds bled; they were deceptive. The deeper gash on his arm was of course in need of immediate attention, but the soldier was not bleeding to death. No one but Jenny seemed to know that--there was so much blood, and so much of it was on her white nurse's uniform. They quickly realized she had done it. The theater lackeys would not let her touch the fainted soldier, and someone took her purse from her. The mad nurse! The crazed slasher! Jenny Fields was calm. She thought it was only a matter of waiting for the true authorities to comprehend the situation. But the police were not very nice to her, either."