A review of Until I Find You by John Irving

Clearly John Irving is a talented writer, whose extensive research is matched by his extensive knowledge. It’s just a shame he doesn’t have a trusted editor willing to insist that Irving cut the ridiculous quantity of fluff out of his latest tome. Jack is “a writer, albeit one given to melancholic logorrhoea. A storyteller, if only out loud.” (699) The same could be said for Until I Find You. The book simply doesn’t realise its potential, either in terms of its characters or the force of its plot. Melancholic logorrhoea is an excellent description.

Reviewed by Magdalena Ball

Until I Find You
By John Irving
Random House
Sept 2006, ISBN 13579108642, 824 pp. $24.95.

I suspect that once you’ve reached a certain level of fame, publishers simply stop editing you. After all, whatever you write is destined to sell. Why rock the boat? It’s clear that John Irving has reached that level. He’s a great storyteller, and his characters are vibrant and interesting, but boy, is his latest novel, Until I Find You, in need of a decent edit.

The book presents a decent story which pivots around Jack Burns, a young actor and inevitable ladies man who spends his life unraveling the memories of his childhood. Irving cleverly presents us with a story in the first half which is presented as Jack Burn’s childhood. It begins in 1969 with Jack and his mother Alice searching for his runaway father, the organist and tattoo junkie William Burns. The chase is entertaining enough as Alice and Jack go on a grand adventure which takes them through the brothels of Europe, tattoo parlours, and cafes. Jack’s naïve perspective on the sometimes wild goings on is both charming and indicative of his later personality as he forms his own brand of understanding of the tawdry situation his mother puts him in:

A prostitute, Jack’s mom told him, was a woman who gave advice to men who had difficulty understanding women in general—or one woman, such as a wife, in particular. The reason the men looked ashamed of themselves was that they knew they should really be having such an important and personal conversation with their wives or girlfriends, but they were inexplicably unable or unwilling to do so. They were “blocked,” Alice said. Woman woere a mystery t othem; they could pour out their hearts only to strangers, for a price. (105)

Although they remain close, they don’t find William, and go back to Toronto so Jack can get an education at an all girls’ school. As you might expect, his education is rather more extensive than a mother might like, and as his father’s reputation has preceded him, Jack follows in his footsteps as he is regularly abused, coddled, and mentored into a combination of acting genius famous for his transvestite roles, and compulsive womanizer. As Jack ages, the plot line moves forward through Jack’s almost accidental stardom, his long time friend Emma’s fame as a writer, and above all, Jack’s desire to find his father, and discover himself. All that is good, and there is much here to applaud, from the rich settings that Jack traverses, the well researched sense of place, the funky exploration of the world of tattooing and the interesting melding of the delicate with the rough. The book is populated with interesting damaged characters from Jack’s mother Daughter Alice, the delicate Miss Wurtz at Jack’s school to a host of dodgy and damaged tattoo artists, porn stars, wrestlers, crazy actresses, psychiatrists, a pregnant aerobics instructor and a few famous actors.

It’s a great first draft. But there is so much extraneous material here. From the start of Jack’s education, there’s a continuum of catalogue-like name dropping that is beyond tedious. The reader just doesn’t need to have a complete synopsis of the play Jack puts on at St Hilda’s school, Mail-Order Bride in the Northwest Territories:
in the rugged Northweest Territories, where men aare men and women are scarce, a pironeer community of fur trappers and women are scarce, a pioneer community of fur trappers and ice fishermen sends a sizable amount of money, “for traveling expenses,” to a mail-order service called Brides Back East. The poor brides are chosen from among unadoptable orphanes in Quebec; many of them don’t speak English…(242)

The previous quote goes on for 3 full paragraphs, but I won’t do to you what Irving does to his readers (besides, my editors aren’t afraid to edit me). There are many other ‘besides-the-point’ passages of material that Irving clearly couldn’t bear to remove even though it is completely extraneous to the plot and characters. From the complete plotline to Blade Runner, to a catalogue of Oscars won in various years, overviews of what various film stars were wearing at a number of both fictional and real events, the films Jack saw (complete with multi-paragraphed plotlines), to the complete story (so detailed as to be a story itself) of one of each of Jack’s films; Irving spares his readers nothing:
Jack-as-Melody promptly dumps Pure Innocence and goes solo. By ’69, Melody’s albums have gone gold and platinum and triple-platinum. She returns to being a blues singers with her last hit single, “Bad Bill Is Gone,” an ode to an abusive ex-boyfriend-the former lead guitarist in Pure Innocence, whom the tabloids allege Melody once tried to kill by lacing his favourite marijuana lasagne with rat poison. (449)

The above passage which explicates one of Jack’s films goes on for three (count em’!) pages. It’s basically skip over material, and wouldn’t be a major problem if the book wasn’t so full of this stuff, and if this didn’t detract from both the story and the underlying theme of growth, deception, damage and healing promised by lines like: “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. (496) However, both Jack’s character, which never really emerges beyond description—the reader is never let in—and Jack’s story are all submerged into the non-stop, tedious and sensationalised machinations of Jack’s “little guy”. Until I Find You never really achieves its promise, partly because it is so weighed down with irrelevancy, and the reader is therefore unable to give Jack the sympathy that such a myopically presented character deserves as he moves from 1969 to 2000.

Clearly John Irving is a talented writer, whose extensive research is matched by his extensive knowledge. It’s just a shame he doesn’t have a trusted editor willing to insist that Irving cut the ridiculous quantity of fluff out of his latest tome. Jack is “a writer, albeit one given to melancholic logorrhoea. A storyteller, if only out loud.” (699) The same could be said for this Until I find You.The book simply doesn’t realise its potential, either in terms of its characters or the force of its plot. Melancholic logorrhoea is an excellent description.

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