Authors: John Irving
Setting Free the Bears
The Water-Method Man
The 158-Pound Marriage
The World According to Garp
The Hotel New Hampshire
The Cider House Rules
A Prayer for Owen Meany
A Son of the Circus
Copyright Â© 1982, 1996, 1993, 1980, 1974, 1976, 1982, 1968, 1973, 1979, 1993, 1982, 2011 by Garp Enterprises, Ltc.
This collection copyright Â© 1996 Garp Enterprises, Ltd.
All Rights Reserved. No part of this book may be reproduced in any manner without the express written consent of the publisher, except in the case of brief excerpts in critical reviews or articles. All inquiries should be addressed to Arcade Publishing, 307 West 36th Street, 11th Floor, New York, NY 10018.
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Library of Congress Cataloging-in-Publication Data is available on file.
IN MEMORY OF
Don Hendrie, jr.
“Trying to Save Piggy Sneed” first appeared in
The New York Times Book Review
(August 22, 1982).
A portion of “The Imaginary Girlfriend” first appeared in a fall 1995 issue of
The New Yorker.
“My Dinner at the White House” first appeared in
“Interior Space” first appeared in
(vol. 6, no. 2, 1980).
“Brennbar's Rant” first appeared in
“The Pension Grillparzer” first appeared
“Other People's Dreams” first appeared in
Last Nights Stranger: One Night Stands & Other Staples of Modern Life
, edited by Pat Rotter, published by A & W publishers (1982).
“Weary Kingdom” first appeared in
The Boston Review
“Almost in Iowa” first appeared in
“The King of the Novel” first appeared, in a much shorter form, in
The New York Times Book Review
(November 25, 1979); and in this form, as an Introduction to the Bantam Classic edition of
“An Introduction to
A Christmas Carol”
first appeared, under the title “Their Faithful Friend and Servant” and in a slightly different form, in
The Globe and Mail
(December 24, 1993); and in this form, in the Modern Library edition of
A Christmas Carol
“GÃ¼nter Grass: King of the Toy Merchants” first appeared in
his is a memoir, but please understand that (to any writer with a good imagination) all memoirs are false. A fiction writer's memory is an especially imperfect provider of detail; we can always imagine a better detail than the one we can remember. The correct detail is rarely, exactly, what happened; the most truthful detail is what
have happened, or what
have. Half my life is an act of revision; more than half the act is performed with small changes. Being a writer is a strenuous marriage between careful observation and just as carefully imagining the truths you haven't had the opportunity to see. The rest is the necessary, strict toiling with the language; for me this means writing and rewriting the sentences until they sound as spontaneous as good conversation.
With that in mind, I think that I have become a writer because of my grandmother's good manners and â more specifically â because of a retarded garbage collector to whom my grandmother was always polite and kind.
My grandmother is the oldest living English Literature major to have graduated from Wellesley. She lives in an old people's home now, and her memory is fading; she doesn't remember the garbage collector who helped me become a writer, but she has retained her good manners and her kindness. When other old people wander into her room, by mistake â looking for their own rooms, or perhaps for their previous residences â my grandmother always says, “Are you lost, dear? Can I help you find where you're
I lived with my grandmother, in her house, until I was almost seven; for this reason, my grandmother has always called me “her boy.” In fact, she never had a boy of her own; she has three daughters. Whenever I have to say good-bye to her now, we both know she might not live for another visit, and she always says, “Come back soon, dear. You're
, you know” â insisting, quite properly, that she is more than a grandmother to me.
Despite her being an English Literature major, she has not read my work with much pleasure; in fact, she read my first novel and stopped (for life) with that. She disapproved of the language and the subject matter, she told me; from what she's read about the others, she's learned that my language and my subject matter utterly degenerate as my work matures. She's made no effort to read the four novels that followed the first (she and I agree this is for the best). She's very proud of me, she says; I've never probed too deeply concerning
she's proud of me
âfor growing up, at all, perhaps, or just for being “her boy” â but she's certainly never made me feel uninteresting or unloved.
I grew up on Front Street in Exeter, New Hampshire. When I was a boy, Front Street was lined with elms; it wasn't Dutch elm disease that killed most of them. The two hurricanes that struck back to back, in the â50s, wiped out the elms and strangely modernized the street. First Carol came and weakened their roots; then Edna came and knocked them down. My grandmother used to tease me by saying that she hoped this would contribute to my respect for women.
When I was a boy, Front Street was a dark, cool street â even in the summer â and none of the backyards was fenced; everyone's dog ran free, and got into trouble. A man named Poggio delivered groceries to my grandmother's house. A man named Strout delivered the ice for the icebox (my grandmother resisted refrigerators until the very end). Mr. Strout was unpopular with the neighborhood dogs â perhaps because he would go after them with the ice tongs. We children of Front Street never bothered Mr. Poggio, because he used to let us hang around his store â and he was liberal with treats. We never bothered Mr. Strout either (because of his ice tongs and his fabulous aggression toward dogs, which we could easily imagine being turned toward us). But the garbage collector had nothing for us â no treats, no aggression â and so we children reserved our capacity for teasing and taunting (and otherwise making trouble) for him.
His name was Piggy Sneed. He smelled worse than any man I
smelled â with the possible exception of a dead man I caught the scent of, once, in Istanbul. And you would have to be dead to look worse than Piggy Sneed looked to us children on Front Street. There were so many reasons for calling him “Piggy,” I wonder why one of us didn't think of a more original name. To begin with, he lived on a pig farm. He raised pigs, he slaughtered pigs; more importantly, he lived
his pigs â it was
a pig farm, there was no farmhouse, there was
the barn. There was a single stovepipe running into one of the stalls. That stall was heated by a wood stove for Piggy Sneed's comfort â and, we children imagined, his pigs (in the winter) would crowd around him for warmth. He certainly smelled that way.
Also he had absorbed, by the uniqueness of his retardation and by his proximity to his animal friends, certain piglike expressions and gestures. His face would jut in front of his body when he approached the garbage cans, as if he were rooting (hungrily) underground; he squinted his small, red eyes; his nose twitched with all the vigor of a snout; there were deep pink wrinkles on the back of his neck â and the pale bristles, which sprouted at random along his jawline, in no way resembled a beard. He was short, heavy, and strong â he
the garbage cans to his back, he
their contents into the wooden, slat-sided truck bed. In the truck, ever eager to receive the garbage, there were always a few pigs. Perhaps he took different pigs with him on different days; perhaps it was a treat for them â they didn't have to wait to eat the garbage until Piggy Sneed drove it home. He took
garbage â no paper, plastic, or metal trash â and it was
for his pigs. This was all he did; he had a very exclusive line of work. He was paid to pick up garbage, which he fed to his pigs. When
got hungry (we imagined), he ate a pig. “A whole pig, at once,” we used to say on Front Street. But the
thing about him was that he couldn't talk. His retardation either had deprived him of his human speech or had deprived him, earlier, of the ability to learn human speech. Piggy Sneed didn't talk. He grunted. He squealed. He
â that was his language; he learned it from his friends, as we learn ours.
We children, on Front Street, would sneak up on him when he was raining the garbage down on his pigs â we'd surprise him: from behind hedges, from under porches, from behind parked cars, from out of garages and cellar bulkheads. We'd leap out at him (we never got too close) and we'd squeal at him: “Piggy! Piggy! Piggy! Piggy!
!” And, like a pig â panicked, lurching at random, mindlessly startled
he was startled, as if he had no memory) â Piggy Sneed would squeal back at us as if we'd stuck him with the slaughtering knife; he'd bellow OINK! out at us as if he'd caught us trying to bleed him in his sleep.
I can't imitate his sound; it was awful, it made all us Front Street children scream and run and hide. When the terror passed, we couldn't wait for him to come again. He came twice a week. What a luxury! And every week or so my grandmother would pay him. She'd come out to the back where his truck was â where we'd often just startled him and left him snorting â and she'd say, “Good day, Mr. Sneed!”