Tim's Reviews > Until I Find You

Until I Find You by John Irving
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Mar 19, 12


"It's better than a sore penis," Jack said. — From "Until I Find You."

Well, maybe not ...

John Irving's longest novel also takes the longest to become interesting — if it ever does; I bailed before getting close to page 820, all ambition sapped from me by this strangely uninvolving work that, by my limited reckoning, never would have been published if submitted by an unknown. While containing familiar Irving elements (don't they all?), there is an utter lack of verve and momentum. It's as though the work were ghosted by an Irving replacement; like series Westerns or action-detective novels that are "A (known author name here) novel by (fill-in writer here)." I can see it: "Just throw in some prostitutes, child sexual abuse, talk about penises, have characters go back repeatedly to red light districts with lots of prostitutes, add some wrestling — how are you on bears?"

The early part of the novel contains Irving's typical scene-setting and history. Usually, his novels perk up at some point, and suddenly you realize you're "in" the tale, and it's smooth sailing from there. "A Son of the Circus" (a much better, and really underrated novel) was like this; about 100 pages of interesting yet not completely engrossing exposition, then you're suddenly off and running. Not here.

In the early part of the tale, 4-year-old Jack Burns is taken by his mother hither and yon in search of his tattoo-obsessed, church organ-playing father, whom Jack had never met. Oslo, Helsinki, Stockholm; Alice, a tattoo artist, visits whorehouse after whorehouse talking to prostitutes, visits church after church and listens to their organs; talks to tattoo artist after tattoo artist, most with "Tattoo" in their names. Almost nothing of interest happens in the book's first part. Oh, there's a vintage Irving moment in which a housekeeper and young Jack put their bodies against each other, hold their breath and let their hearts beat together. "You must be alive." "You must be alive, too." That's darling, and it's early; after that, it's tough sledding. Irving has Jack GIVING A MAN A TATTOO at 4 years old. This isn't funny (a 16-month old doing it might be; or a 7-year-old); it's just dumb. The only other real relief from traipsing around Europe pointlessly is a scene in which Jack is saved from the ice by a tiny soldier, who of course later has sex with Jack's mother (not everything is tiny).

Preceding the novel itself is a blurb from William Maxwell's "So Long, See You Tomorrow" (a much better novel; this mention actually is what made me decide to give the book a read) about memory, that it's "a form of storytelling that goes on continuously in the mind and often changes with the telling." This implies that what we see through 4-year-old Jack's eyes isn't necessarily what happens. Irving never develops this during the reading I did before tossing the book aside; but the way he handles it, if that's what he's doing, is not even interesting. Perhaps, later, much good happens and Irving rights this listing ship. I'll never know. But if a writer expects people to read an 820-page book, he simply MUST find a way to keep them interested in the first quarter of the novel. I hate bailing on books, particularly those from authors I've loved in the past, but I will if a writer does this to me.

If Irving were trying something completely different, I'd be more forgiving. He's not. It's like Rod Stewart going from a rocker who could do no wrong on his own and with the Faces from 1970-73 to completely losing it and later doing crappy show tunes — except Irving is throwing in the same elements he always does, but without making them the slightest bit interesting. Unlike Rod, he's not abandoning what he does best; he's simply doing what he always does very badly and at excruciating length.

I gave up on "Until I Find You" (better title: "Until I Toss You in the Trash"), picked up the new Tim Powers novel, started reading, and it felt as if I were awakening from a sleepwalk. Enough. I've spent more words on Irving's book than it deserves.

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