Garp hooks you right from the start, when you meet his fiercely independent-minded mother, Jenny Fields, a nurse who slashes a leering soldier in a movie theater in the WWII era. Poor Jenny has no interest whatsoever in men (she is not gay...she just has no sexual interest in anyone). But the irony is, her wealthy, conservative family believes that she is rutting like a rabbit.
Jenny may not be promiscuous, but she definitely has some unconventional ideas. She wants a baby, but does not want to become involved with a man to get one. Since artificial insemination was not yet mainstream in the 1940s, she finds a vegetative soldier with whom to perform her insemination.
T. S. Garp is the result (he has no first name, just initials, in honor of the fact that his father was a Technical Sergeant). Most of the story is his, but Jenny still plays a prominent role throughout. Garp's life is unconventional, and that's putting it mildly. I won't go into detail, because I don't want to ruin the delight of reading the book and discovering it for yourself.
It becomes even more confusing when Jenny writes a book called "A Sexual Suspect," detailing her unusual life and views. It becomes a best seller, and now Garp not only knows the truth about how he was conceived, but everyone else in America knows too because the book is a best seller.
Garp is surrounded with an entertaining (and sometimes frightening) cast of supporting characters, including his wife Helen, the snobbish Percy family whose members go by nicknames such as "Cushie" and "Pooh" (his intimate relationship with one member will play a major role in his undoing at the hands of another), the horny neighbor "Mrs. Ralph," a trio of prostitutes in Vienna (one of whom wants to both mother him and have sex with him), and the lovelorn ex-football-player-turned-transexual named Robert Muldoon.
Crazy things happen to Garp throughout the book, but interestingly enough, there isn't a major point or a build-up to some sort of moral. It's more like "Seinfeld"...a book about nothing. Yet it's also a book about everything...feminism, sexuality, adultry, ambition, and even death. It's about the life of Garp, and isn't that pretty much how anyone's life is? Maybe the things that happen to most of us aren't as surreal as what happens to Irving's characters, but life is truly just a series of events and that's why Garp's world is, too.
There are some sad and disturbing parts, like the fate of Garp's youngest son. This book is loaded with humor, but it's black comedy to be sure. If you're looking for cheerily upbeat reading, this isn't the place to find it.
But I urge you to give it a try...and please, for the love of God, DO NOT watch the movie beforehand (or even afterwards). Some things are perfect as-is, and this book is one of them. But try it for yourself. Pick up a copy! Another book I need to recommend -- very much on my mind since I purchased a "used" copy off Amazon is "The Losers' Club: Complete Restored Edition," a funny, highly entertaining little novel I can't stop thinking about.