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(Fresh off a victory over Ernest Hemingway, John Irving began training for his next fight.)

John Irving had just finished stretching out on his home mat when he got the call.

Like all ex-wrestlers who buy a home mat for the kids, he finds himself on it more often than not.

“Irving?  John Irving?  Is this John Irving the writer?”

Calls that start out like this usually didn’t end well.

“It is.  How can I help you?”

“We’ve got a probelm, Irving.”

It usually doesn’t end so poorly so soon, but it saves time when it does.

“We have a problem, or you have a problem.  Who is this?”

“Of course, I’m Ken Kesey.  I’m a writer like you.”

“The Ken Kesey?”

“If you’re The John Irving, then I’m The Ken Kesey.”

“I am, and yes, we do have a problem.”

After Hemingway tapped out he started calling everybody to tell them I thought I was better than him.  It’s true, but I meant better than him that night.  He tapped.  That means I’m better.

Okay, I didn’t influence a generation of writers with my style, but I’m a fan of the 19th Century novel, not a modernist.  I love the story more than the format.  Hemingway changed the format, but he doesn’t see that the same way he doesn’t see that I was better than him in the octagon.

His crisp, clean, prose is fine and dandy, but if I want something so wonderfully modern, I’ll look at an international-style building.  I’m not a cement and glass guy.  I like the little extras.

Now Hemingway says I gave him a little extra.  Says I thumbed him in the throat with the half nelson that beat him.  I didn’t.  There’s no way I thumbed him in the throat.

“Ernest says you thumbed him in the throat.  He told me to watch out for your tricks,” Kesey said.

“I didn’t thumb him.”

“That’s good, because I can tell you I know every trick on the mat.  I’m pretty sure they’d transfer to the octagon just fine.”

“No tricks.  I don’t have any tricks.  This is all new to me.”

Kesey coughs into the phone and doesn’t cover his mouth.  “Just remember, this is a Division 1 wrestler here.  Not some practice room scrub or someone coming off an injury.  Once we square off it’s just you and me, two guys deciding what’s what.  I already know what’s what.”

“You’re not scaring me Kesey.  I know all about you.  Farm strong and dangerous.  I don’t quit, you should know that.”

“You’re talking to the guy who wrote twenty pages inside a dog’s brain while it ran through the woods.  I don’t quit either.”

“How did the thing with Cuckoo’s Nest finally work out?”

“Not the way Hollywood’s been with you.  Two books become one movie?  Nice.”

“Not if you only have two books.”

“I have more than two books, Irving.”

“C’mon Ken.  You hang your hat on One Flew Over the Cuckoo’s Nest and Sometimes A Great Notion.”

“What do you hang your hat on?” he asked.

“The one I’m working on.  That’s the one that will throw the others into shade.”

“Like I’ll put you in shade.”

“Probably, but that’s why we do these things.  You never know.”

“We don’t have to do it.  Look, I’d enjoy beating you senseless, but it wouldn’t be as fun as it would if you were a better wrestler.  Ernest said you stalk like a crab.  That right?”

“It’s part of my repertoire.”

“Great, a crabber.  He said you’re a little spastic in your moves.”

“No, he’s the jerky one.  I flow like water.”

“You’re not going to quit?”


“You won’t tap out?”


“You know a D1 wrestler will choke you out or make you tap, right?”


“Irving, I don’t want to do that.  There’s not enough wrestling writers around.  We need to help each other, not choke each other.  Don’t you have other writers you’d like to meet in the octagon?  There’s got to be a few.  How about Vonnegut?  You could tattoo a semi-colon across his forehead.”

“Not Kurt.  I don’t do well against long unorthodox guys.  I want Herman Melville.  I want the guy who wrote Moby Dick, the guy who spend the last decades of his life ignoring writing.  Get me Melville.” 

“Could be a mistake.  Melville’s bitter.  He’s been looking for a reason to fight.”

“Maybe you should face him.”

“Naw, I’d kill him worse than I’d kill you.  You’ll be fine.”

“You’ve seen him fight?”

“No, but he said ‘a whale ship was my Yale College and my Harvard.’  He didn’t say dojo or gym.  Do you really think you’ll have a problem with a Yale or Harvard guy?”

“He’s a whaler.”

“That’s what he says, but that doesn’t make him special.  You don’t lead by pointing and telling people some place to go. You lead by going to that place and making a case.  So you’ll whale on him.  Let me know how it turns out.”


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