An uneven miscellany of fiction, autobiography, and commentary from the author of, most recently, A Son of the Circus (1994). The title essay, about a retarded pigkeeper mocked and harassed by the young John Irving and his pals (in Exeter, New Hampshire, the author's hometown), is presented as a meditation on the writer's need to give his attention, and his heart, even to the unlikeliest of subjects. A long autobiographical sequence is brightly written and offers interesting details about Irving's youth and young writing life, but bogs down in redundant and tendentious accounts of his adventures as a wrestler, wrestling coach, and referee (an avocation that, Irving cheerfully concedes, he's taken beyond the point of obsession) and that rather flaunts a somewhat politicized remembrance of "My Dinner at the White House." A section of six short stories (all Irving has produced) includes some forgettable pieces (which their author has the good grace to dismiss as unimportant) from Playboy and Esquire, but also two of Irving's most skillful fictions: "The Pension Grillparzer," a witty tale of Americans in Europe that was first published as part of Garp, and "Interior Space," a complex portrayal of a young marriage endangered by pettiness and sheer foolishness, as well as mortality. A concluding trio of essays written in homage to writers Irving admires includes a pedestrian "Introduction to A Christmas Carol" (written for a Modern Library reprint) and a longer piece in praise of "The King of the Novel," which attractively (if unoriginally) acknowledges the deeply formative influence of Charles Dickens. The concluding essay, on Irving's friendship with G(infinity)nter Grass and the latter's embattled celebrity in his native Germany, is considerably more interesting. Irving is a heartfelt and headlong writer who doesn't spare the horses, or the fireworks. The many who cherish his energy and generosity as a novelist will find much here to whet their appetites for his next big tale.