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Widow Maker

''A Widow for One Year'' -- John Irving's new book scales the charts

''Be careful driving home,'' the novelist warns. ''the deer come out of nowhere. Hit one and it'll slide up your hood and straight through your windshield. Kill you instantly.''

It's been 20 years since Garp, and the world according to John Irving is still one big accident waiting to happen. Even in the elysian weald of Vermont, where the 56-year-old author has built his secluded hilltop home, the notorious undertoad is alive and hopping. In fact, tragedy and calamity — as much a part of Irving's oeuvre as neurotic bears, sensitive wrestlers, and transsexual tight ends — loom larger than ever in his critically lauded new novel, A Widow for One Year, a bittersweet tale about unhappy families, luckless love lives, and sudden, unspeakable disasters — including a plot-turning car crash even more chilling than Garp's memorable fender bender. ''Comparisons are going to be inevitable,'' Irving says, his accent as rich and plummy as New England roadside preserves. ''This book is more like The World According to Garp than any other I've written. Only it's a lot darker.''

Garp, of course, was the 1978 blowout best-seller that turned Irving — then a full-time college wrestling coach with three little-known novels on his resume — into a publishing heavyweight. That quirky, poignant parable, full of random violence, feminist fanatics, and wrenching parental paranoia, sold more than 10 million copies, inspiring a worldwide network of Garp fan clubs, a Robin Williams movie, and even a brief fashion craze (Irving still has his ''I Believe in Garp'' T-shirt). It also made him rich enough to build his dream house — an enormous, eccentric, cedar-shingled structure complete with its own rubber-padded wrestling room — and transformed the writer into the biggest literary sex symbol since Byron (that skimpy wrestling singlet he wore in promos for Vanity Fair didn't hurt).

''No. Wrong. Not true,'' Irving bristles at the myth of his sexpot mystique. ''Fame is just someone else's perception of you. I mean, look where I live. Nobody here knows who the f--- I am. If I go to a restaurant in New York, maybe I'll see somebody looking at me. But half the time they think I'm an old ballplayer. They're like, 'Is that Bucky Dent?'

''I work eight or nine hours a day, seven days a week,'' he goes on. ''I travel as little as possible. I have a couple of grown children out West [Colin, 33, and Brendan, 28, both from his first marriage]. And my wife [literary agent Janet Turnbull, 44, with whom he has a third son, 6-year-old Everett] has a business in Toronto, so we go there sometimes. But that's it. That's what I do. I don't have a closet full of tuxedos.''

His wife backs up his story. ''The unique thing about John is that every day is exactly the same,'' she says. ''You can count on it. He gets up, has breakfast, goes into his office until 5 o'clock, works out in his gym, eats dinner, goes back to his office. His day is very regular. Fortunately, my life is crazy, so it works out nicely.''

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