There are some John Irving novels I like (‘The World According to Garp’; ‘A Prayer for Owen Meany’) but there are others I just see as over-long, self indulgent and ultimately pointless.
This is one of the latter.
It’s the most penis obsessed novel I’ve encountered in a long while and concerns Jack Burns, a young man who grows up a single-parent family in Canada and the USA. As a four year old his mother takes him on a quest for his absentee father across various port cities of Northern Europe. This is actually a strong opening, and has a nice counterpoint later on when – as an adult – Jack tracks down the truth about that trip and ultimately about his father.
In-between though there is a seemingly endless section where Jack becomes a major Hollywood star. It’s not funny enough or angry enough to be satire, and instead seems to be some warmly affectionate – if racy – tribute. It all builds up to the moment when Jack wins Best Adapted Screenplay at the 1999 Academy Awards. Now the person who actually won the Best Adapted Screenplay Oscar that year was John Irving for ‘The Cider House Rules’ (another of his novels I actually like) and so we get a fictionalised account of the winner’s experience at the ceremony. (Yes Mr Irving, have another pat on the back for your achievement!) What I couldn’t happen wondering though, was whether the crow-barring in of that evening was the entire raison d’être of the character’s Hollywood career? Yes it helps the plot at points that Jack is so rich and famous, but that could easily have been achieved by making him an author or a sports star or a whizz-kid businessman. I know one shouldn’t second guess an author’s intentions, but it does feel like Irving wanted to say Thank You to the movies by paying this fictional tribute.
There are numerous sex scenes in this book, with Jack an object of female desire from before the age of ten (a detail which will no doubt make some readers feel queasy); there are characters who seem to be important parts of the unfolding narrative but die off abruptly (and a lot of them have great secrets which they never hint of to anyone, a trait fictional characters are so skilled at); and there are of course numerous references to wrestling. But it never really feels like it’s actually about anything. It reads more like Irving taking a few ideas for a walk without really knowing where they were going to end up.
In short this is a very irritating novel. However it is a very long novel and I did read it all the way through, so there had to be something in these pages to hold my attention. And it's also, I have to admit, an occasionally very funny novel. Indeed the confusion which arises from the Christian protestors inadvertently picketing Paul Schrader’s ‘Mishima’ should make you guffaw even if you’re reading on a train (which I was). So it’s for those reasons that I’ll give what should have been a two star book, a slightly grudging three stars.