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UNTIL I FIND YOU by John Irving


by John Irving

Pub Date: July 19th, 2005
ISBN: 1-4000-6383-3
Publisher: Random House

The life of an actor is compromised and traumatized by his many relationships with older women, in Irving’s sprawling—in fact, overstuffed—11th novel.

Jack Burns’s earliest years are spent in his native Canada and points east, such as Oslo, Copenhagen, Helsinki and Edinburgh (where his father, church organist William Burns, had seduced and abandoned Jack’s mother Alice, a tattoo artist). We learn a lot about the tattooer’s art, and the occupations, avocations and fetishes of the (mostly female) people Jack encounters over the years, accompanying Alice’s pursuit of William (who keeps moving), then as a student at St. Hilda’s School for Girls, where he bonds uneasily with Emma Oastler, a preadolescent free spirit who’s the first of her gender to take a protective interest in Jack’s nubile penis. Jack moves on himself, to fledgling fame as a schoolboy actor, then to Exeter Academy and the University of New Hampshire (allowing Irving to recycle autobiographical material previously fictionalized elsewhere), a Hollywood career and an Oscar for writing a screenplay based on old pal Emma’s best-selling novel, increasing his distance from Alice (who’s found other outlets for her affections), and—after nearly 700 pages of repetitive, self-indulgent twaddle—a search for father William, who’s in a Zurich sanatorium, afflicted with obsessive-compulsive disorder, covered with tattoo images comprising “both a history of music and a personal history.” Until I Find You aims for plaintiveness too late, having settled, over far too many pages, for arbitrary freakishness exacerbated by what seem extraordinarily blasé dramatizations of the sexual abuse of children, for seriocomic purposes. Yes, we understand it’s supposed to be eccentrically amusing. It isn’t. And there are so many—uh, limp penis jokes that the reader begins to feel as if he’s watching a particularly inane episode of Saturday Night Live.

Is this Irving’s worst novel? No doubt about it. Will it sell gazillions of copies nevertheless? Absolutely.