John Irving lies on a wrestling mat. He breathes slowly, a yoga breath.
If you could hear his inner voice, you’d hear this, “Breath in, breath out.”
While you might expect him to lie quietly from one minute to the next, he suddenly pumps out twenty push-ups, rolls over for twenty sit-ups, then stands for twenty squats.
He does the routine five times in thirty minutes, recording the time on a clipboard hanging by the door.
He talks to himself, “Ken Kesey is crazy. I can’t fight Tom Wolfe. Ken won’t, but he wants me to.”
The phone rings. John Irving answers.
“Irving, it’s all set.” It’s Kesey.
“I talked to Wolfe. He was worse than Poe. He wants the match held in his apartment.”
“Tell him he can’t wear a white suit.”
“Tell him yourself. You sound winded.”
“It’s called training, Ken. You remember training?” Irving said.
“Start training when you and I get to fight, John. You won’t need much training for Wolfe. The guy is almost eighty.”
The cage fights began as grudge matches, first Hemingway, then Kesey, Melville, and Poe. All dead authors coming back in their prime.
Kesey in his prime is a frightening figure.
“I’ll take the fight, Ken. And I’ll do it in Manhattan. What I don’t want to do is ruin the man, or what’s left of him. Reading him is like reading a bad newspaper or a bad piece in a magazine. It makes you wince.”
Kesey’s voice rises on the phone. “Makes you wince, huh? John, listen, seriously, you’re not going into the octagon to read. It’s not a reading room. The only wincing going on there is Wolfe when you choke him out. I’d like to be there for that.”
“Maybe you ought to fight him then. I’ll referee.”
“I saw you ref in The World According To Garp movie. Looked like you knew what you were doing.”
“You would know. Maybe this is your fight.”
“How can I pound the guy who wrote The Electric Acid Kool-Aid Test?”
“How could you not? The guy can’t write. I can pick up any of his books and turn to any page and read a sentence that would make me gag. If I were teaching fucking freshman English, I couldn’t read that sentence and not just carve it up.”
Irving spreads his feet wide and shifts his weight over one foot then the other for one-legged squats.
“That’s why this is a better fight for you. You’ll actually do it and not balk like you did Melville. Just because you like a guy doesn’t mean you can’t give him a beating,” Kesey says.
“Do you like Tom Wolfe?”
“Not so much, but I think he likes me. The guy stayed at our parties all night. He did the time with the Merry Pranksters to get it right. I respect his work, but, you know, he’s a New Yorker, a southerner, he’s all that with a white suit. I talked to him. He’s a Conservative, you know. So I asked, “if you’re a Conservative, why aren’t you behind conserving the land?” He said he enjoyed his view of Central Park.”
“Me and Norman Mailer have talked about how hard it is in America to get better,” Kesey says. “Especially at writing. Wolfe called you and Mailer and Updike the three stooges. Those were fighting words then, now you’ve got the match.”
“I don’t believe in fighting words, Ken. I believe in words. That’s what we work with, and Wolfe’s don’t work. He cannot write worth beans and he dresses like Mark Twain.”
Irving starts jumping up and down with an imaginary jump rope.
Kesey coughs into the phone.
“Wolfe said this in Craig Offman’s interview for Salon: “Irving needs to get up off his bottom and leave that farm in Vermont or wherever it is he stays and start living again. It wouldn’t be that hard. All he’d have to do is get out and take a deep breath and talk to people and see things and rediscover the fabulous and wonderfully bizarre country around him: America.””
“Wolfe said that?”
“He did. He was talking about you.”
“I figured as much when he said Irving. Get off my bottom, huh? Take a deep breath? Start living again? Okay, I’ll get off my bottom and take a deep breath and start living by going to his apartment and throttling him. After our match he won’t get off his bottom, and taking a deep breath will be difficult.”
“That’s my guy. Now be ready for anything. He lives on the fourteenth floor. There’s probably an elevator, but it might not work that day, so be sure and pace yourself on the stairway.”
“After this fight, we’ve got a real good one coming up. John Cheever got the Pulitzer Prize you should have won for The World According To Garp in 1979? Maybe he’ll put it up against your Oscar in a winner take all match.”
“Why not put up your Oscar, too?”
“Funny guy, Irving. I don’t have an Oscar. One Flew Over The Cuckoo’s Nest won Oscars, I didn’t. Gotta go.”
John Irving pushes the off button on his phone and walks to the corner of the room where a thick rope hangs from the ceiling. He grips the rope and pulls himself up, his legs at a right angle.
“Tom Wolfe and his plantation suit are going down. John Travolta wants it back. Wolfe probably thinks you have to be dumb to skip rope for 45 minutes, or climb a rope. No, you have to be able to imagine something else. While you’re skipping rope, you have to be able to see something else. And I see Tom Wolfe tapping early.”
He touches the ceiling and slowly descends the rope.