BOOKS : Wrestling with a dilemma

THE IMAGINARY GIRLFRIEND by John Irving Bloomsbury pounds 9.99
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The Independent Culture
EVER since Hemingway, it has been fashionable for American writers to parade themselves as sportsmen. Mailer boxed once or twice and talked about it all the time. Tom Wolfe, the gent, installed a punch-bag in his elegant Manhattan townhouse. John Irving, one of the hard men of contemporary American letters, wrestles. So do some of his characters, and Irving himself plays the wrestling referee in the film of The World According to Garp, the novel that made him a world-ranking literary contender.

As a wrestler, Irving admits, he has never been more than "halfway decent", but although he has not often experienced the gasping ecstasy of victory, he has had decades of pleasure. This peculiar little book is a memoir of his life in literature and wrestling - actually, the order should be reversed - his emphasis is on wrestling, not so much a bitch goddess as a demanding imaginary girlfriend. The book's title comes from a white lie that the young Irving told his coach. Realising he would never be selected for the first team, he changed universities, pretending he was moving elsewhere to be with his girlfriend. There was no girlfriend, although later there would be three wives.

Irving had a high sense of commitment and a low centre of gravity, but he was just not gifted athletically. The wrestling coach told him it didn't matter: "Talent is overrated. That you're not very talented needn't be the end of it."

This insight, Irving implies, has shaped his whole existence: "My life in wrestling was one-eighth talent and seven-eighths discipline ... my life as a writer consists of one-eighth talent and seven-eighths discipline, too."

Early on, he was told by the literary coach, his creative writing teacher, "that I could be a writer". This coach was right too. Irving can transform sex and violence and personal mythology into literature with the best of 'em. In his deft third novel The 158-Pound Marriage, one of the key characters, a wrestling coach, categorises books by wrestling weight classes: "That's a pretty fair 134-pound novel." Irving's novels tend to be heavy- weights - unfortunately, The Imaginary Girlfriend is a light fly-weight. There are good moments, such as Kurt Vonnegut's one-liner: "You may be surprised," Vonnegut told me. "I think capitalism is going to treat you okay." But in this book, Irving comes very close to being a wrestling bore.

Even his two grown sons seem to exist only as extensions of his wrestling ambition, his second and third chances at winning. We know their weights and body types, and that he is proud that they wrestle, but there is no sense of who they are. You've heard of trophy wives. Here are trophy sons.

The problem in The Imaginary Girlfriend is not that the facts are less enthralling than those Irving might have invented. The problem is the absence of "strict toiling": "Being a writer," he once wrote, "is a strenuous marriage between careful observation and just carefully imagining truths you haven't had the opportunity to see. The rest is the necessary strict toiling with language."

Here he doesn't take the time to make the people he has known into characters, to re-create them on the page so that we can know them too. Leaving out the salient detail is more usually a beginner's mistake. That so fine a craftsman makes it may be due to the fact that when people attain haut celebrity, they stop asking coaches for advice, or, if they do ask, the coaches stop telling them the truth.