Sun, Jul 17, 2005 - Page 19 News List

John Irving takes a turn for the dull

John Irving's latest book, `Until I Find You,' is handy to keep on the bedside table if you're an insomniac

By Patrick Beach  /  NY TIMES NEWS SERVICE

Until I Find You
By John Irving
824 pages
Random House

What, we must ask at this advanced stage in his career, is the deal with John Irving? Wildly inventive and staunchly old-fashioned, hugely popular and undeniably literary, eager to grapple with taboo but achingly humane, mixer of high comedy and ghastly tragedy, Irving assigns himself death-defying authorial tasks and most of the time runs the table.

Until I Find You is not one of those times. It's a pretty good 300-page novel hiding inside a not-very-good 800-plus page one. One wishes his editor would have said something, anything. "This book is 100,000 words too long" comes to mind.

Longtime fans will find much that is comfortably familiar as they settle in here -- European locales, deviant sex, absent parents, physical disfigurement, a fatal traffic accident, much of the action taking place in an exotic land mass to our immediate north known as "Canada." Our protagonist is Jack Burns, who is but a wee lad of 4 when we first meet. His mother, Alice, is a Toronto tattoo artist who's been knocked up by one William, to whose charms the majority of Ontario's females have similarly succumbed. Womanizing cad that he is, William has fled the country and his responsibilities, and headed for Europe to continue his project of getting music tattooed all over his body. Yes you read that right.

So the first 125 pages are Alice and Jack schlepping around Northern European seaports and tattoo parlors in search of William. Then Alice enrolls the boy at a private school named St. Hilda's, where he will be "safe among the girls." Not so much. The real St. Hilda, despite her having been dead since 680 A.D., is going to be plenty mad when she finds out what Irving has going on at a school named for her: Older girls -- most notably a teenage student named Emma Oastler -- molest Jack beginning when he's eight.

Jack's sexual confusion is further exacerbated by the fact that, because he is beautiful and sure to be a ladykiller like his father, he is repeatedly pressed into class dramatic adaptations of Tess of the d'Urbervilles, The Scarlet Letter Jane Eyre and the like -- in drag.

Let us not spend time doing much Freudian spelunking on this; it's sufficient to note that Jack becomes a Hollywood actor, frequently playing a man playing a woman, and that when he is nominated for an Oscar his teacher from St. Hilda's who made him wear dresses will be his date.

Alice, meanwhile, abruptly gives up her search for Jack's father and overcomes her outrage that Emma Oastler is molesting her 8-year-old son by entering into a long lesbian relationship with Emma's mother.

OK. Assuming that Irving's vast and devoted readership can stomach repeated scenes of child sexual abuse -- and the Long National Nightmare that was the Michael Jackson trial has surely inured us somewhat to that -- all of this at least has potential. The flaw, and it is a fatal one, is that Jack has been robbed of more than his innocence, he's been robbed of his interestingness. For all the horrific psychological damage sexual abuse can cause, I never knew it had the capacity to make its victims dull

But Jack is. About two pounds into the book, Irving hauls Jack to a psychiatrist who, intentionally or not, gives voice to the reader's frustrations: Jack acts in movies, goes to the gym and has sex with women. And that's pretty much it. He has no friends, takes no vacations, has never voted, has no hobbies or quirks. For all the awful things that have happened to him, he is passive to a baffling degree. And unless I'm misreading this badly, defining Jack by what he isn't and doesn't do is Irving's point.

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