From John Irving a zany, obsessed 'Life with Father'; The Hotel New Hampshire, by John Irving. New York: E. P. Dutton & Co. $15.50.
"The Hotel New Hampshire" is a novel obsessed. And an obsessive novel. It is about a family of American zanies who run a hotel, or actually a succession of hotels, all named the Hotel New Hampshire. The First HNH is actually located in New Hampshire. The second HNH leads the family to Vienna, and the third brings them back to Maine.
Three different hotels all with the same name? "You've got to get obsessed and stay obsessed," says old Grandpa Berry, the founder of this screwball clan of hosteliers. He is obsessed with weight-lifting. In his bedroom. In the hotel. Early in the a.m.
Other Berry obsessives include Win Berry, father of all the little Berries. Father is obsessed with hotels and with his own private dream of the future. Father eventually loses his eyesight combating the bomb plot of a gang of zany anarchists. A hero at last.
Father's oldest son, Frank, is obsessed with stuffing and restuffing the family dog, named Sorrow. "Sorrow floats," novelist Irving obsessively reminds us, as Sorrow reappears in various tragi-comic pratfalls.
Still other Berry children are obsessed with: 1. four-letter words; 2. each other as objects of desire; 3. making money; 4. growing. Lilly, the dwarf Berry , is so preoccupied with growth that she writes a family history called "Trying to Grow," which reaches the bestseller list. Lilly's books saves the family, rescues the plot, and provides a fairy-tale ending to Irving's fairy-tale book.
Assorted madcaps attach themselves to the Berry family. A bear trainer nicknamed "Freud." A trained bear named "State O' Maine." Another bear, who is really a girl named Susie, dressed in a bear suit.And a sequence of "seeing-eye dogs, four to be exact, the last simply named "Four."
Two bears, two blind men, three hotels, four dogs -- well, five dogs counting Sorrow -- a bevy of prostitutes, a huddle ot anarchists, a bucketful of Berries, or are they Bearies? For "The Hotel New Hampshire" is obsessed with Nabokovian doubling, or tripling, or quadrupling, as if novelist Irving thought we couldn't have enought of a good thing. Even the anarchists are addicted to doubling. They plant to blow up the Viennese Opera House with not one but two bombs. One to trigger the other. The first bomb outside the house, the "Sumpathy Bomb" inside it.
"The Hotel New Hamsphire" is a sympathy bomb. John Irving made his big bang with "The World According to Garp" in 1978. In "Garp" Irving dealt it with a father obsessed with his children's safety. In "Hotel" he deals with a family of children bent on protecting father. But "Hotel" fails to explode.
"Hotel" is contrived and overdone. It will remind many of James Thurder's "My Life and Hard Times." But it goes on too long. Its comic pratfalls just can't seem to support one more "Life with Father," no matter how many bears and dogs are stirred into the pudding.