Longtime friends actually strangers

I’ve never actually met two of my best friends, though our friendship has lasted over 40 years. John Irving and Stephen King have been dear companions of mine since 1979. I met each when I was 13, shortly after “Salem’s Lot” and “The World According to Garp” first shocked the literary scene. Each author is thankfully still writing today, and I await each new book like an over-the-hill teenage fangirl.

Certainly, I’ve discovered dozens of authors over the years, some of whom have been dead for centuries, some just starting off on brilliant careers, but John and Steve (yes, I can call him “Steve” after 40 years) have been with me from the start.

One composes novels at such an astounding rate that cynical critics aver that he gets paid per word. The other painstakingly rewrites and crafts his sentences with a meditative obsession. Both have seen film versions made of several of their works, both with varying degrees of critical and popular approval.

Irving’s first novel was published in 1972, and King’s in 1973. Both compose weighty, lengthy tomes. King, however, has written over 50 novels, whereas Irving has produced a mere 13. King writes works of horror, suspense and the supernatural; Irving composes realistic, social novels based on the style of his favorite 19th Century authors, Dickens and Hardy.

Each is wholly delightful to read. Please don’t be a snob and eschew King because he writes genre novels. Similarly, don’t avoid Irving as boring because he writes literary fiction. The world is large enough for both styles — and a better place as well.

Newcomers to Irving’s works may not know that he always creates the last sentence of his books first, then composes the novel to flow into that final sentence. The sheer poetic beauty of an Irving novel’s conclusion is breath-taking. King, on the other hand, has been widely panned by critics for his abrupt endings. The joke is that, when King can’t figure out how to end a story, he simply blows everything up. Witness the Overlook Hotel, Carrie White’s high school, Las Vegas in The Stand, the recent Institute or Derry, Maine. Each reduced to ashes in the apocalyptic final pages.

These two authors are ridiculously dear to me; they have given me reading joy from middle school to middle age. To my great pride, both my children have read and loved several of King’s novels and short stories, though neither has tackled Irving yet. Admittedly, I was a little young to read Irving back in the day.

On these dark, winter nights, I invite you to curl up with a thick, unwieldy doorstop of a novel by either of my two lifelong friends. One will puzzle and confound you, the other will unsettle and terrify you. But both will enrich your world, I hope, for many years to come.

— Susan O’Byrne of Hinsdale is a contributing columnist. Readers can email her at [email protected].