Jack’s Naughty Bits: John Irving, The World According to Garp

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Jack's Naughty Bits

At a particular moment this last weekend, under somewhat peculiar circumstances, I watched a wall of fire rush forth to engulf my head. The effects were immediate and significant, and might have proven irrevocable. As it turned out, I was lucky. My brother had accidentally left the gas on in the oven, so when I struck the match to light it, the kitchen filled with flame. I was burned up my nose and across my forehead; I lost some hair in the front and a lot on the top; my eyebrows, thankfully, were only singed, my arms burned lightly, my hands blistered a little and my right shoulder, curiously, turned black. But I was fine, despite the shock. I went to the shower, watched the clumpy piles of singed hair clog up the drain, and, an hour later, went back to my friends and tried to laugh about it all.


I tell you this not as a play for sympathy, but as an explanation for this week’s selection. Yes, just as the final bits of char are peeling off my forehead, I’ve decided to usher forth that commemorative celebration you’ve all been waiting for, Burn Victim Week, honoring everyone from Icharus to Marguerite Porrete to the ten women who immolated themselves when Indian politician MGR needed a kidney transplant. I tip my bottle of hydrogen peroxide to all of them.


The most remarkable thing about the whole event was the shower. As the cool water sprayed down on my pained skin, I wasn’t thinking about what could have happened, how close I came to serious injury; I was thinking about dating. I was thinking about face, in the western sense. Though I could well have lost my eyes (as Milton asks: “Why was the sight / To such a tender ball as the eye confined? / So obvious, so easy to be quenched”), I was more preoccupied by being seen than seeing. Vanity, that jealous ruler, allowed little room for the survival instinct, or animal fear, or any other sane response. No, I just wanted to look okay after it was all over. Ouch. Thinking back on it, the egoism hurts more than the burns did.


So with flame-broiling on my mind, I thought it appropriate to excerpt the impregnation scene from John Irving’s marvelous The World According to Garp. In the passage, Jenny Fields, an army nurse, tends to a ball turret gunner who’s taken shrapnel in the brain, and then been burned severely. He is a vegetable, whose only commerce with the world is to achieve enormous erections and to moan out the word “Garp.” Fields, not being a big fan of sex, nor of sharing other people’s ideas, sees great fathering potential in the moribund sergeant Garp, as she calls him. She thus decides to borrow something from him before he dies, and to make a little Garp of her own.

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From The World According to Garp by John Irving

With his hands so heavily bandaged, [gunner Garp] had lost the ability to masturbate, an activity that his papers said he pursued frequently and successfully — and without any self-consciousness. Those who’d observed him closely, since his accident with the ship’s fire, feared that the childish gunner was becoming depressed — his one adult pleasure taken from him, at least until his hands healed  . . .


And so one night she helped him; with her cool, powdered hand she took hold of him.


“Ar,” he moaned. He had lost the P.


Once a Garp, then an Arp, now only an Ar; she knew he was dying. He had just one vowel and one consonant left.


When he came, she felt his shot wet and hot in her hand. Under the sheet it smelled like a greenhouse in summer, absurdly fertile, growth gotten out of hand. You could plant anything there and it would blossom. Garp’s sperm struck Jenny Fields that way: if you spilled a little in a greenhouse, babies would sprout out of the dirt.


Jenny gave the matter twenty-four hours of thought.


“Garp?” Jenny whispered.


She unbuttoned the blouse of her dress and brought forth the breasts she had always considered too large  . . . Jenny took off her sturdy nurse’s shoes, unfastened her white stockings, stepped out of her dress. She touched her finger to Garp’s lips  . . .


“Garp?” Jenny whispered. She stepped out of her slip and her panties; she took off her bra and pulled back the sheet  . . .


“Garp,” said Jenny Fields. She took hold of his erection and straddled him.


“Aaa,” said Garp. Even the R was gone. He was reduced to a vowel sound to express his joy or his sadness. “Aaa,” he said, as Jenny drew him inside her and sat on him with all her weight.


“Garp?” she asked. “Okay? Is that good, Garp?”


Good, he agreed, distinctly. But it was only a word from his wrecked memory, thrown clear for a moment when he came inside her. It was the first and last true word that Jenny Fields heard him speak: good.

© John Irving