Wednesday, March 26, 2008

Until I Find You by John Irving

John Irving is one of my favorite authors. I have not yet his first three books, but just about every one after that:

The World According to Garp
The Hotel New Hampshire
The Cider House Rules (One of my favorite books, although not so enthralled with the movie version...)
A Prayer for Owen Meany
Trying to Save Piggy Sneed
A Son of the Circus (Another favorite Irving novel)
A Widow for One Year (This one was a disappointment. I don't feel Irving does female protagonists that well...)
and now most recently his most recent work, Until I Find You.

Like many of his novels, Until I Find You explores thematic issues of absent fathers, strong mothers, sex and sexuality and New England. The world of Amsterdam's red light district which was a part of A Widow for One Year reappears in this book. Irving's love of wrestling is also included, as is Phillips Exeter Academy, which Irving attended and is referenced in four of his novels. A new element in this book (or at least one I don't recall in the others I've read) which is featured prominently is the view into the world of the tattooist and tattoos. I found this particularly interesting...

In a case of life imitating art--or art imitating life, I noticed a certain number of similarities between Irving's protagonist Jack Burns and himself. First off, their names: Jack is a nickname for John. Also, John Irving's birth surname is actually "Blunt," so both he and his character have the initials "J.B." Both attended Exeter, both wrestled, both were somewhat short in stature with small frames. In the novel, Jack Burns wins an Oscar for Best Adapted Screenplay the same year Irving actually won the Oscar for his adaptation of The Cider House Rules.

The similarities don't end there. According to an interview in the New York Times, both Irving and his main character were sexually abused as young boys of 10-11 years old. And both grew up without ever knowing their biological father. In the novel, Jack Burns is reunited with his "Pop," but unfortunately John Irving's father died without ever meeting him.

Irving said of this book, "I have not written a novel that disturbed me so much." And frankly, I found it a bit disturbing myself. I am used to the weird and wild plots and eccentric characters of Irving's novels, but the first third of the book describes the life of Jack Burns from age four to his late teens and throughout it he is being sexually abused. The actual sexual assault of the ten year-old at the hands of a predator in her forties is preceded by hanging out in tattoo parlors and around prostitutes at age four and being molested by teenage girls from ages five to nine. I kept having to remind myself that it was just a fictional character. Even Lolita was twelve when she was defiled by Humbert Humbert!

Irving writes, "In this way, in increments both measurable and not, our childhood is stolen from us–not always in one momentous event but often in a series of small robberies, which add up to the same loss." And Jack's childhood is not only stolen from him by repeated sexual incidents, but in the manipulation of his memories by his mother, Alice who prevented him from knowing his father William.

Jack eventually becomes an actor--or as Irving puts it: "According to his mother, Jack Burns was an actor before he was an actor...," but the Hollywood references in the saga felt a bit forced and contrived to me. Given Irving's experience with the industry I would have thought he'd be able to convey it with more verisimilitude. His depiction of Jack's grade school years--particularly his early forays into performing--are wickedly funny. And, unlike Irving's own experience, the damaged and depressed Jack Burns gets a happy ending--connecting with a half-sister he never knew and reuniting with his father.

As the story end, Irving writes, "Jack had stopped acting. He was just Jack Burns--the real Jack Burns at last." And with that one realizes the "Until I Find You" tattoo worn by Jack's mother Alice is not about her search for William, or Jack's search for the truth or his father but in fact the universal search to find, accept and forgive ourselves.

1 comment:

  1. That's so funny! I love love love John Irving! I think he is just amazing. My favorite is Hotel New Hampshire (not a fan of that movie though) and now I'll definitely have to pick up Until I find you.