In the two decades since The World According to Garp, the world according to Irving has spun in place. Dark comedy still rules. Slapstick mixes with kinky sex and flashes of brutal violence. Plot loops back on itself, pretzeled by symmetrical twists. Prose is serviceable and heavily italicized for the reader's convenience. Smack in the center is a wildly dysfunctional family.
Ruth Cole's two older brothers died in a grisly car crash before she was born. Her father, who writes scary children's books, is serially unfaithful. Her gorgeous mother, though semicatatonic with grief, summons the energy for a torrid affair with a 16-year-old boy. Then she abandons her family entirely. Just 4 when her mother decamps, Ruth grows up to be a hugely successful novelist with a miserably unsuccessful love life. Will she find happiness? Almost everybody in A Widow for One Year is a writer, and they freely dispense advice about the novelist's craft. Here's more: Change your shtick at least once every quarter-century. And please, go easy on the italics. (Random House, $27.95)