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Published: Saturday, 10/1/2005

Irving's latest is long on disappointment

BY TOM HENRY
BLADE STAFF WRITER

UNTIL I FIND YOU. By John Irving. Random House. 820 pages. $27.95.

Bloated writing or beautiful prose?

It's usually not a difficult decision. But in John Irving's 11th novel, there's a fair amount of bloat and beauty to sort out.

At 820 pages, Until I Find You tries the patience of even the most faithful of Irving's fans. I'm one of them, having read almost everything he's written. I've been enamored with his unconventional style, quirky plots, and oddball characters since he became a national sensation following the 1978 release of The World According to Garp. I've come to enjoy the way Irving coyly builds the foundation for a strong plot behind your back, piece by piece.

He zigs, then he zags. Eventually, the zaniness comes together, with all the little nuggets and details that had been thrown your way magically making sense.

But that's not quite what happens with Until I Find You. I had high expectations for a powerful, coming-of-age novel rich in dark comedy or Irving's irreverent tongue-in-cheek humor. What I was left with were feelings of emptiness and dissatisfaction.

Irving has proven himself capable of pulling off long, intricate plots, but I kept wondering:Why did Irving invest so much time and energy in this project?

It's clear this is Irving's most ambitious work - many have argued too ambitious. It's got comic moments, but the tone of the narrative is a departure for him - perhaps a noble attempt at a new challenge, even if the execution isn't altogether there. Until I Find You is largely filled with sadness and melancholy. It's a quest for lost innocence, best summed up in an eloquent passage halfway through the book:

"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."

Well said. But the problem comes in sniffing out those small robberies, for the settings from tattoo parlors to sanatoriums almost come to life more than the people and events he describes. One observer claimed to have counted an amazing 117 characters in the book. Nearly all except a half dozen or so have bit parts, making them rather extraneous.

But one of the biggest problems is that the main character, actor Jack Burns, is about as lifeless as a stage prop. He is apparently full of charm to those who know him. But not to readers.

Case in point: Jack is repeatedly the object of sexual fondling during his youth. Abuse? It's hard to tell, because you don't know much about what's going through Jack's head other than that he's either used to getting what he wants from women or women are used to getting what they want from him. He's possibly both a manipulator and a victim, but we can't tell. He's supposedly a ladies man who never had to work at being one, especially with girls and women older than he is. As one reviewer quipped, you'd be hard-pressed to find a book that has so much sex and so little eroticism.

Until I Find You is ostensibly about Jack's three-decade pursuit of the father he never knew. The story begins in 1969, when Jack is an amazingly mature 4-year-old criss-crossing northern Europe with his mother, Alice, a prostitute and tattoo artist. The two always seem to be one step behind Jack's father, William, a famous church organist and womanizer who's addicted to tattoos himself.

The yearlong quest is suddenly abandoned (one has to wonder how prostitution and tattoo artistry financed such extensive European travel) so that young Jack can first grow up as the only boy in an all-girls school in Toronto, then move on to a private academy in Irving's familiar literary turf, New England. Along the way are several encounters with females you might expect and many that seem hard to fathom. Jack winds up being a hotshot in Los Angeles, a fast-paced setting that Irving hasn't used in prior books. But he handles the intricacies of L.A. well in this book, much as he captured the flavor of Green Bay in his last book, The Fourth Hand.

Ultimately, Jack decides to pick up where he and his mother left off in Europe while he was a child. The book gains momentum after the first 400 pages, leading to a surprise ending. And there's something strangely attractive about the overall theme, as is the case in most Irving books.

Irving said in a recent interview that he grew up without knowing much about his father. The author said that, he, too, had been the object of sexual abuse and that he used to have "an attraction to older women that I couldn't understand or explain."

That makes this book more befuddling. Why is there such a disconnect between Jack Burns and the reader, knowing what we do about Irving?

Until I Find You won't rank as Irving's best work. Yet it is perplexing and fascinating in some ways, with elements you won't find elsewhere in his impressive body of work.

Contact Tom Henry at:

thenry@theblade.com or

419-724-6079.



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