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Tuesday, August 6, 2013

Review: Trying to Save Piggy Sneed by John Irving

John Irving’s Trying to Save Piggy Sneed is a collection of short works divided into sections of memoir, fiction, and homage. I was in the midst of a long historical novel and needed something with which to cleanse my pallet and Irving’s short works seemed just the thing to dip into as needed. I am a fan of Irving’s novels. I genuinely enjoy his sense of absurdity and moralizing; Irving’s novels hit on the core of humanity, which is what I was expecting from this collection. Sadly, it did not deliver in the same fashion.

My grandmother sometimes shares with us letters about her childhood, her disaffected mother and the father she lost early in life, and finally her 50+ year long relationship with my grandfather. These letters and stories are so important to me because they are the makeup of this great woman that I adore. However, they would probably be uninteresting to a stranger. John Irving’s memoir reads much like my grandmother letters, and frankly, I am basically uninterested in his stories of the boys he may or may not have wrestled back at Exeter. There is a way to write about your life in sports (that can even be of interest to a nonsports enthusiast such as myself); unfortunately, John Irving hasn’t quite discovered it. However, when he writes about realizing that he was always a writer, about his education and initiation into the literary world and the friendships forged there I was thrilled. I come to Irving’s novels time and again because I like the way he writes about people, which comes across brilliantly here.

What you have really come to Piggy Sneed for though is the fiction. Irving has written very few short stories (his style is not exactly suited to the form) but I was eager to read each of them. The inclusion of “The Pension Grillparzer” from The World According to Garp is alone worth the price of the book. This is easily Irving’s best story. This is the story of a rundown hostel in Austria populated with the world’s oddest circus and its toothless trained bear. The most outrageous of Irving’s plots (such as this one) serve as a ballast for humanity by speaking deep truths about human cruelty and kindness. Irving’s created worlds, like our own, are dangerously unpredictable, absurd, and full of extremes. That’s the beauty of working our way through them.

The final section of the collection is that of homage to Charles Dickens and Gunter Grass. Dickens is Irving’s ultimate hero and instructor. The seed of all Irving’s plotting and moralizing lies within the novels of Charles Dickens. Here Irving is mostly writing in defense of Dickens’ sentimentality and in praise of Grass’ skill. His homage led me to pick up copies of both The Tin Drum and The Pickwick Papers, so I would say he succeeded in him aim.

Trying to Save Piggy Sneed is not Irving’s best work. It is a collection for those (like myself) interested in learning the whole of a writer they enjoy. Both through the literary section of his memoir and the short stories themselves an interested reader will learn much about Irving’s process. Definitely recommended for the Irving completest, but as I said worth it for “The Pension Grillparzer” alone.

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