Thursday, May 15, 2008

Review: Until I find You, by John Irving

Jack Burns is four years old when this story opens, and remarkably, he's quite mature for his age. Predisposed to take after his (supposedly) wayward Scottish, organ-playing, tattooed father, Jack's mother Alice feels an obligation to drag Jack halfway across the globe for a year so that William Burns might "perform his duty" to his son. She's always a step behind the elusive William, who seems to be rampaging across Europe in his quest for much younger women to seduce.

Alice Stronach, daughter of a tattoo artist, makes a living giving other people tattoos throughout Scandinavia, the Netherlands, and Canada- some of them extremely suggestive. Jack finds that he has many memories from this time period, although not many of them are accurate. It's in Canada that Jack and his mother settle, and where Jack attends St. Hilda's, an all-girls school that is co-ed up until the 4th grade. Jack is continually haunted by the image of his father, both on the stage, and in his sexual life.

It is in this fashion that Jack meets Emma, a precocious 6th grader, who initiates him into the mysteries of sex. Emma and Jack remain friends up until their time in LA, where Emma becomes a writer. The narrative rambles on, though Jack's experiences at boarding school- Redding and Exeter- and in college at the University of New Hampshire, and on into his life as an actor in LA. In the late nineties, Jack sets out on the same quest he and his mother had undertaken 28 years perviously- though with different aims. While Alice was searching for Jack's supposidly wayward father, Jack spends his time trying to see if his father is actually worth looking for.

It is not long before Jack learns that everything his mother told him about William Burns was a lie- except for the organ playing and tattoos. Jack also finds that his memory played tricks upon him as a child- things either didn't occur as they had, or they occurred in different time sequences. There's an interesting passage about what memory can do to people, and how it colors people's perceptions of others. After the trip, Jack's father is no longer the monster he had been for 32 years.

This book is riddled with John-Irving-isms: the only child of a single parent; the high school years spent wrestling at Exeter or its equivalent in the fictional world; cross-dressing and/ or transvestitism; writers; the mention of living in Amsterdam amongst the Dutch prostitutes; the precocious sexuality of the main character, are just a few. In this way, Until I Find You much resembles The World According to Garp. But 25 years separate the writing of those two books, and John Irving has become a much more sensitive writer, making the sexual conquests of the hero much less of a meaningless romp as a deep, soul-searching picture of a young man growing up. Mr. Irving is adept at creating the kinds of stories that touch the reader. I highly recommend this latest novel by John Irving.
Also reviewed by: The Hidden Side of a Leaf

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