John Irving's new novel Until I Find You tracks a fatherless boy‑turned‑Hollywood star.
July 15, 2005
By Benjamin Svetkey
Photograph by Mary Ellen Mark
John Irving has always filled his books with tragedy and sorrow, with cruel twists of fate and soul‑crushing heartbreak. So it was pretty much inevitable that someday he'd get around to writing about show business. Until I Find You isn't entirely about Hollywood‑the novel also makes stops in Amsterdam, Helsinki, Toronto, and other cities‑but Los Angeles is a major hub. And it's a town unlike any the Vermont‑based author has visited in fiction before, even if he clearly does know his way around the place (thanks to time spent collecting that screenwriting Oscar for his 1999 adaptation of The Cider House Rules). In these parts, there are no cuddly circus bears (although Harvey Weinstein pops up for a cameo, along with several other real‑life celebrities), no transsexual football players (just a transvestite movie star), and not even many wrestling matches (except backstage at the Oscars).
The protagonist is Jack Burns, a young actor who rises to fame playing cross‑dressing crackpots in funky cult movies like The Tour Guide and My Last Hitchhiker ("three years before Jaye Davidson's debut... in The Crying Game," Irving notes). Eventually, he wins an Academy Award and, after the ceremony, bumps into Arnold Schwarzenegger at the urinals of the Shrine Auditorium (where Arnold helpfully offers a hand with Jack's statuette).
Before all that, though, you'll first have spent a few hundred thousand words reliving Jack's childhood. Specifically, his memories of how his tattoo‑artist mom dragged him around Europe when he was 4, searching for his dad, a church organist who bolted before Jack's birth. And his recollections of being the only male at an all-girls elementary school in Canada (where he lost his virginity at age 10). For the first half of the book, Irving spills virtually everything Jack remembers‑or thinks he remembers‑about his youth. Then the author springs the revelation that not all of it may be true, that what's inside Jack's head (put there mostly by his mother) isn't necessarily the whole story. In a way, Until I Find You is a mystery novel, with Jack searching for truth inside his own murky memory. In another, it's autobiography; Irving has said in interviews that much of the book was based on his late‑life revelations about his own childhood (including sexual molestation and a half brother he never knew he had).
Above all else, though, this is a work of Serious Literature, chiseled onto the page by one of America's most important living authors. And, unfortunately, sometimes it reads like it. Irving can be a masterfully unfussy writer with a fantastic sense of humor, but in these 800 pages he's in no rush to entertain. The book's pacing in spots‑particularly early on, when Jack's mom is lugging the boy from one dank European cathedral to another‑has all the zip of a funeral dirge. Mercifully, Irving perks up when he gets to Hollywood, a place where not even his prose can keep a straight face. At the Oscars, for instance, Jack invites as his date his former third grade teacher, the doddering Miss Wurtz, who bumbles around the Shrine mistaking Anthony Minghella for Peter Lorre and confusing Ben Affleck with a bouncer. "To her" Irving puckishly writes, the "celebrities at the party were not movie stars but the actual characters they'd played. Unfortunately, these movies had overlapped in her mind-to the extent that she'd merged the plots of several different films into one incomprehensible epic ...."
In fact, the book's second half is so much more lively, you can't help but wish Irving had packed even bigger chunks of Hollywood into this jumbo volume. It's a rare treat when a writer of his stature ventures into this town - F. Scott Fitzgerald and William Faulkner barely made it out alive and the results are worth reading even if they end up filling only half a book.