October 05, 1981 12:00 PM

by John Irving

The narrator is the third child of five in an odd New Hampshire family. The oldest brother is gay; the second sister is a beautiful girl with incestuous yearnings. The fourth never grows but writes a best-selling autobiographical novel, and the fifth is a boy who dresses in costumes. There’s a bear that talks. The family dog is named Sorrow, and both Sorrow and sorrow plague these poor people. They turn a girls’ school into a hotel, sell it to a circus of dwarfs and then go to Vienna, where they operate another hotel with prostitutes and bomb-building terrorists as tenants. The children talk in four-letter curses, are delighted by scatological nastiness of all kinds, and when they get old enough, they find sex is good for a lot of kinky fun too. Like Irving’s The World According to Garp, this novel has plenty of laugh-aloud moments, but there is also heavy-handed symbolism and sentiment mixed in with serious subjects such as rape, racism, cruelty, deformity and death. The muddled message seems to be that the most important thing in life is to stifle the temptation to jump out open windows in tall buildings. Yet one of the characters says that “the single ingredient in American literature that distinguishes it from other literatures of the world is a kind of giddy, illogical hopefulness.” Perhaps that’s the way Irving sees his own writing. Hotel is cleanly written, often clever. But it’s not about life. It’s a well-read writer’s bright, artificial sleight of hand. There’s nothing here to touch the heart. (Dutton, $15.95)

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