BOOK REVIEW / Almost in Iowa in love: Trying to save Piggy Sneed - John Irving: Bloomsbury, pounds 10.99

THE FIRST thing to say about the new John Irving book is that there's nothing new in it. Trying to Save Piggy Sneed collects two essays and six short stories from the last 20 years, all of which have been printed before.

One of the stories, 'The Pension Grillparzer' is actually a chunk of The World According to Garp - or, as a woefully optimistic jacket-note puts it, 'was previously only to be found inside The World According to Garp, and is now given its first independent airing'. In other words, this story lay buried deep in a famous bestseller until the rigorous scholarship of the Bloomsbury publishing house unearthed it. Next season: that amazing graveyard and convict scene, previously only found inside Great Expectations.

Still, while the other pieces are second-hand too, none has as many miles on the clock and will be unfamiliar to you, unless you happen to subscribe to The Boston Review or American Playboy. The short stories are principally a chance to see Irving working without his most essential tool - space. His four best novels (Garp, The Hotel New Hampshire, The Cider House Rules and A Prayer for Owen Meany) are weighty slabs, easing out across years - books in which people start as children and end as grandparents, undergoing all kinds of loss and attrition along the way. As he says in 'The King of the Novel', an essay about Dickens, 'very simply, narrative momentum and emotional interest in the characters are what make a novel more compellingly readable on page 300 than it is on page 30'. So what is Irving going to manage to cook up in a world where it's all over by page 28?

The results are mixed. 'Brennbar's Rant' is about someone misbehaving at a dinner party - but it's an odd, oblique construction and you may find yourself leaving before dessert. And in 'Other People's Dreams', a man discovers that, by sleeping in someone else's bed, he can have the dreams of the last person who lay there - a nice idea, but one which doesn't really issue into fiction.

The most successful piece is probably 'Almost in Iowa', the story of a car journey in which the driver fends off the isolation of the drive by developing a relationship with the car. 'It was the driver's feeling that a radio would be a distraction to them both.' We never learn the driver's name and this is another indication of the extent to which Irving (a writer who favours names right on the borders of comic book - Garp, Meany, Sneed etc) is working well off his favourite patch here.

The tale gently pays out its information. The driver calls the wife he is driving away from. 'We will often do anything to pretend that nothing is on our minds,' says the narrator. And then a miniature burst of the random scuppers the story's steady spin. (This device comes direct from the novels, where Irving is never afraid to turn a plot on the brute effectiveness of an air-crash or a car-smash: in fact, as a rule of thumb, it's wise to fear for anyone in an Irving novel who steps into a form of transport.) Someone vandalises the car outside a motel, scratching the word 'Suck' into the paintwork. Nicely chosen, that 'suck' - rude, sexual, but finally baffling, the way an act of aggression against you can feel. The driver has a change of heart at this point. 'Going home is hard. But what's to be said for staying away?'

The story could have ended there, on one of those low notes of desolate consolation which Irving hits so roundedly. Unfortunately, he pushes it a few paragraphs further and we get a car wreck and a snap-on life metaphor: 'you cannot drive with your eyes in the rear-view mirror.' It's one of the few occasions in the collection where you're left wanting less.

That determination to be tidy looks like a response to the demands of brevity in the form. Quite frequently in these pages you sense him yearning for larger stretches. In 'Weary Kingdom', Minna Barrett is a dormitory matron, which in itself chimes with Irving's perpetual fascination for institutions - the orphanage in The Cider House Rules, the school and the women's commune in The World According to Garp, almost everywhere in The Hotel New Hampshire - places where life is firmly framed and all the more bizarre for that. Minna is given 'a total composure which now, at 55, reflects the history of her many indifferences', and in that act of compression you can detect a longing for saga, for the bigger picture. In some ways, even the particular rhythms of speech that Irving has an ear for are long and loping ones, tending towards expansion. 'I just didn't see the good in changing my hair from what it's been so long,' says Minna. The small mimetic triumph in that prose has to do with letting things go, rather than pulling them up short.

Irving is, then, close to home when he writes about Dickens, which perhaps explains why a tone of calm appraisal isn't always his first choice. This essay is many things but perhaps not predominantly a piece of literary criticism. Hard, for instance, to imagine F R Leavis ever saying, about Dickens' plots, 'oh, boy; are they ever 'unlikely']' or settling for a sentence like 'and here's another wonderful thing about him'.

What's interesting is how the defence of Dickens against the usual charges (exaggeration, over-elaboration, being soppy) amounts, pretty well point for point, to a defence of Irving's own practices. The essay becomes - like Irving's novels and the best bits of these stories - a hearty cheer for sentiment. 'As a writer it is cowardly to so fear sentimentality that one avoids it altogether . . . A short story about a four-course meal from the point of view of the fork will never be sentimental; it may never matter very much to us either.'

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