For a long time, especially in college, John Irving was one of my favorite writers. A Prayer for Owen Meany remains my favorite, followed by Cider House Rules, The Hotel New Hampshire and then of course, Garp. But starting with Son of the Circus, his sprawling familial novels with his trademark warped viewpoint descended into just being bizarre and not very readable. Now, for readers looking for those early Irving novels, there’s Until I Find You, which echoes earlier work.
Echoes being the operative word.
The actor Jack Burns is the son of a tattoo artist mother and an organist father. His father is not part of his life, and until he is an adult, he thinks it’s because his father deserted him. This, along with a somewhat unhealthy relationship with his mother, causes him to develop his “older woman thing.” There is a lot of “penis-holding,” dysfunctional sex, therapy, Hollywood lifestyles and ambiguous relationships … But rather than summarizing its 820 pages, which would be tiresome for both of us, I’ll just let you read the blurb yourself. (Note that Random House says there’s too much stuff to summarize too, and that’s their job.)
Other reviewers have called his novel “self-indulgent” and they’re right ( there is, for example, an untoward focus on Jack’s nether regions and this is the least of it); however, this is not what bothered me. So what did? Rather than standing on its own as a story, I was reminded of earlier, better Irving novels. It was as though he said, “Okay, those other books didn’t work so now I need to return to the formula.”
John Irving’s success has always been in capturing both the mundane and the unspeakable, churning them through his oddly-configured kaleidoscope and then writing what he sees so we see it too. His characters are strange, the situations they find themselves in even more so. And herein lies the problem: Jack Burns didn’t feel like a character; he felt like Irving himself. Indeed, there are sections that are straight out of the author’s own life. It went far beyond using real life as artistic fodder and felt, at times, like an odd sort of capitulation to market forces. And that’s what feels strange; this was a capitulation to readers just like me.
Still original, still a unique voice, I enjoyed the novel. But if you’re reading him for the first time, don’t read this.