"Where else would you go when you have an ax to grind?"

Thursday, October 06, 2005

'Until I Find You' bloated, but brilliant
Kevin Wood / Daily Yomiuri Staff Writer

Until I Find You

By John Irving

Random House, 824 pp, 27.95 dollars

John Irving's latest doorstop of a novel, Until I Find You, is his most autobiographical work and at over 800 pages certainly the closest he has come to emulating his 19th-century idols Charles Dickens and Herman Melville. Irving's 11th book is a delightful, frustrating and inspiring book that, despite certain shortcomings, ranks as one of his best.

Standing head and shoulders above his more recent novels, The Fourth Hand and A Widow for One Year, Irving's latest work shows a writer at the height of his powers who has sadly fallen victim to major writer syndrome--a condition afflicting commercially successful authors as diverse as J.K. Rowling and Tom Wolfe that leaves awestruck editors unable to trim bloated manuscripts. Until I Find You is a very good book, but expunging about 150 pages of well-written set pieces that do nothing to advance the plot and little to develop the characters would have made it a great book.

Until I Find You tells the story of Jack Burns, the bastard son of a tattoo-addicted organist and ladies' man, and the choirgirl daughter of a tattoo artist. The first 100 pages comprise a detailed account of 4-year-old Jack's travels with his mother Alice, a tattoo artist, around the ports of the North Sea, supposedly in pursuit of his father, William, who seems to leave a trail of broken hearts behind as he goes from one grand cathedral pipe organ to the next.

The pair track Jack's father from port to port before returning to Toronto, where Jack starts school as one of the few boys at the formerly all-girls St. Hilda's, where his philandering father was previously employed.

A beautiful boy, Jack is doted on by both the prostitutes of Amsterdam and the older girls at St. Hilda's. One in particular, Emma Ostler, nearly 10 years his senior, becomes his lifelong protector and later stepsister, sexual educator, roommate and benefactor.

Jack becomes a star actor at St. Hilda's, even in female roles, and goes on to become a movie star known for playing in drag.

In a clever autobiographical twist, Jack Burns even wins Irving's 1999 Academy Award for best adapted screenplay.

Along with Irving's Oscar, Jack also shares a sizable chunk of Irving's personal history. Both were separated from their fathers as infants, though Irving was later adopted by his stepfather, and both were seduced and sexually abused by older women as preteens. Missing parents and older woman-younger man relationships have figured prominently in all of Irving's work and are major themes in the latest film adaptation of his work The Door in the Floor, based on the first part of A Widow For One Year. The theme of sexual abuse and dysfunction is front and center in Until I Find You, as Jack develops a lifelong fixation with older women and Emma with younger men.

Another of Irving's favorite themes, loss, grief and regret, is also central to Until I Find You, with ever-present tattoos symbolizing characters' sorrows--one of Alice's specialties is a broken heart tattoo, and each of the tattoos that make up William's full-body covering comes with considerable emotional baggage.

Discussing tattoos, Jack's stepparent at one point tells him: "Life forces enough final decisions on us...We should have the sense to avoid as many of the unnecessary ones as we can"--one of a number of epigrams Irving underscores by having Jack borrow them from his life for movie lines.

Irving's fondness for metafiction is also in evidence and the reader is treated to a number of capsule versions of the movies Jack stars in.

These stories-within-the story contribute to the novel's length, and Jack's adult retracing of his childhood voyage around the North Sea, which begins with a startling revelation that forces both Jack and the reader to reassess everything they think they know about Jack's parents, helps justify the detail provided in the first 100 pages, but an inordinate amount of the book dwells on Jack's early childhood as one of the few boys at the exclusive St. Hilda's without much in the way of subsequent payoff.

As in much of Irving's previous work, most of the characters are outsiders looking for their place in the world, a goal Irving seems to have finally achieved.

Hey! if you've read this far, obviously you are interested in John Irving (or a very dedicated Woodshed reader - Hi Mom!) in which case you may want to read the interview with the man published in the DY the same day.

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