I’m utterly convinced that one day I’m going to see John Irving on the subway. He lives in Toronto part time, and what better place for him to observe the eccentric cast of chracters who regularly populate his novels than on public transit? Now, I say “see” because of course I would be far too terrified to actually talk to him; however, I would look up from my book, and still have a thrilling moment of recognition (not to mention vindication).
So it’s probably clear to you that I’m a John Irving fan. By the list in the frontmatter, this will be my ninth Irving novel, so while it makes me well-qualified to judge Until I Find You against his body of work, I’ve also got a pretty strong bias. Of course, John Irving’s not for everyone (if you’re not okay with an seemingly obligatory masturbation scene, pick another actor), but as the incredibly apt cover blurb says “There is simply no one else who writes like he does.”
Until I Find You is the story of Jack Burns, who we meet as a 4-year old boy when his tattoo artist mother Alice takes him on a European journey to try and track down his father, William Burns, a notorious womanizer and accomplished organist. This first section of the book is dedicated to Jack’s first important relationship with his mother and each of Jack’s major life stages will be dramatically affected by a woman, and these relationships are the most crucial of the novel). We follow Jack through his school years, and his early formation as an actor, where he becomes not only an accomplished female impersonator, but learns his most important acting lesson: to always play to his audience of one — in this case, his mysterious father. Lapsing into plot summary of an 820-page novel, let alone one as tightly woven as a John Irving novel, would make this not only a spoiler fest, but too long to read, but suffice to say, around midway through the novel, Jack, now a Hollywood actor, experiences a huge reversal in everything he always thought to be true, opening it up for the cyclical repetitions and persistent refrains with which Irving excels.
Now Jack must reexamine the actors in his own life, and finds himself in the unfamiliar position of audience of one. It’s a particulalry effective metaphor for a book of course, which may have a broad audience, but which is played out for one person at a time. And so the tropes of acting, writing, rewriting in our lives and our history are played out with Irving’s cast of everyday oddballs (for it is one of his great skills to normalize what may seem entirely bizarre).
Until I Find You is laced with Irving’s classic deadpan remarks and gift for situational humour (sometimes in combination). For example, only in an Irving novel would you find a line such as “You can give yourself a headache trying to decipher the tattoos on a naked man who’s leaping up and down on a bed.” You’ll also find some delightful inside jokes: Note that Jack wins the Oscar for best adapted screenplay in the same year and against the same opponents as Irving himself did, in 2000, when he won for the adaptation of his own novel (and my favourite Irving), The Cider House Rules. (Jack loses out for best supporting actor to Michael Caine, who incidentally, won that year for his portrayal of Dr. Larch in Irving’s film.)
But of course, as in all his books, beneath the bear costumes and hand transplants, one can always find a detailed and compassionate examination of human nature. This is a story that asks how well we know our parents, and ultimately ourselves. Until I Find You is edged with a misty bleakness, as Jack, like many of us will, searches for the titular “you” – not necessarily a specific person, but rather the person who will listen to our stories (chronologically or not), who will read our tattooed bodies and see both joy and sorrow, a heart that has been broken, but is still whole.
Despite the five pages of praise at the front of the novel, some of it hailing Until I Find You as Irving’s best work, it’s not my favourite, but still very good, and time spent with Irving is always enjoyable (if occasionally disturbing). Irving’s 12th novel, Late Night in Twisted River, is due out in October, and the author is slated to appear at IFOA this year, so I’ll have to make a special effort to attend. And if I can’t make it, well, I’ll just be riding the subways, John, until I find you…