The first time I read Setting Free the Bears must have been shortly after high school, since I discovered John Irving--as so many of us did--by reading Garp, which I devoured while on my first trip to Europe in 1980. And while Garp impressed me as much as it did everyone, I've only ever read it once and I've read Setting Free the Bears many times over. This book always reminds me of traveling. It has a road trip in it for one, but I have often read it while traveling myself, so it captures for me that delicious sense of freedom and leisure and anticipated adventure that you have while on the road.
Here is the opening paragraph:
"I could find him every noon sitting on a bench in the Rathaus park with a small, fat bag of hothouse radishes in his lap and a bottle of beer in one hand. He always brought his own saltshaker; he must have had a great number of them, because I can't remember a particular one from the lot. They were never very fancy saltshakers, though, and once he even threw one away; he just wrapped it up in the empty radishbag and tossed it in one of the park's trashcans."
The narrator, Graff, and the radish-eater Siggy end up buying a motorcyle together and hightailing it out of Vienna, later to return to carry out their ill-fated scheme to set free the animals of the Vienna zoo. All the elements that later made Irving famous (there would be two more novels published before Garp) are present: that quirkiness that never goes overboard into cuteness or mere device, delightful plot surprises, and an exuberance of language, but he's not trying so hard to be "John Irving, famous writer" as he seems to be in some of his later works. It's a wonderful book, and I am pulling out my hair, because I seem to have given away my copy, and I want to read it again right now. It's the kind of novel that justifies the artform. Oh, yes, you say to yourself, this is why I read novels.