Until I Find You – John Irving

In contrast to several of John Irving’s large-scale comic novels of the past thirty years, Until I Find You likely won’t attract a wave of enthusiastic new readers to the writer’s work. (There are ardent fans of A Prayer for Owen Meany, for example,who have read nothing else by Irving, including his career-making The World According to Garp.) In theory, all the ingredients are here for a compelling novel. Indeed, it’s been widely reported that writing Until I Find You was an emotionally exhausting experience. Irving has candidly revealed in interviews that as a young boy—like the novel’s protagonist Jack Burns—he was sexually molested by an older woman.

Sexually wounded children have of course played indelible supporting roles in some of Irving’s finest work, in particular rape survivor Ellen James in Garp and pregnant incest victim Rose Rose in The Cider House Rules. With his new book, however, the ambitious decision to center an elaborate 820-page narrative on an abused protagonist has yielded frustrating and unsatisfying results.

Readers can safely deduce that in no conventional sense is Until I Find You an autobiographical novel. Jack Burns’s globe-trotting coming-of-age rise from Copenhagen tattoo-parlor urchin to first male enrollee at a Toronto all-girls’ school to international fame as a female-impersonator in Hollywood movies doesn’t strain credulity so much as shred it like confetti and toss it to the winds. Irving long ago secured his reputation as a hardworking New England fabulist comprised of equal parts Dickens and Fellini. At his dizzying best, he bridges postmodern and mainstream literary tastes by championing an idealized but recognizably human sentimentality set against forces of melodramatic calamity and absurdist circus-of-life plot twists.

Most disconcerting about Until I Find You is its portrayal of sexual abuse. The various episodes are rendered in a slapstick tone that undercuts the stern moralizing that Irving later interjects about the “thieves of Jack’s childhood.” Jack is ten years old when a middle-aged Portuguese housemaid named Mrs. Machado initiates a series of wildly athletic sexual encounters with the boy. Neither the first nor the last older woman to molest Jack under comic circumstances, Mrs. Machado’s character and dialogue are painted in broad farcical strokes complete with phonetically tortured accent (“What ees Meester Penis theenking?”).

Holding the story line tenuously together is an overarching search for Jack’s father, William. (This is another much-reported parallel between Jack Burns and the author, who was likewise abandoned by his father at an early age.) The missing father hovers teasingly at the edges of the plot like a Rabelaisian sensualist. For the greater part of the novel, we hear about William Burns only through whispered innuendo and a chain of obscure clues that stretch around the world. He’s a classically trained church organist, a passionate womanizer on the lam, and an “ink addict” whose skin is tattooed with hymns and liturgical texts like a ream of human sheet music. There is eventually a satisfying sense of closure to the mystery of the father’s whereabouts, but readers who stick around for the ending will be hard-pressed not to feel that Irving is struggling to wring emotion from an unfocused tale rife with improbable characters and situations.

Bob Wake