Tuesday, August 16, 2005

"Until I Find You" - A Review of John Irving's Latest Novel

I have always appreciated John Irving’s writing. There are manifold reasons why his work strikes a responsive chord with me. The sport of wrestling forms a continuing motif that somehow weaves itself into each of his works. He patterns himself after some of the same authors I most admire – Dickens, Dostoyevsky, Conrad. Like Dickens, Irving has a way of creating a world of memorable characters into which I find myself instantly transported as soon as I open the book.

About a year and a half ago, I had an opportunity to begin what has become a fascinating correspondence with Irving. It began with my writing to thank him for signing several of his books I had given as gifts. As an addendum to the thank you note, I mentioned how Irving’s wrestling career at Philips Exeter Academy had almost overlapped with mine at Governor Dummer Academy. Irving captained the Exeter team five years before I served as the Captain of the GDA team. I also shared the fact that Irvin Foster, PEA’s Captain, was the only wrestler to defeat me my senior year. I was shocked and delighted when Irving replied with a three page hand written letter revealing that he had been the Assistant Wrestling Coach at PEA that year, and had taught Irv Foster the takedown that he had used to defeat me!

Along the way, Irving started to talk about his writing in our exchange of letters. Exactly one year ago this week, he revealed that he had finished writing the manuscript for what would be called Until I Find You, but having finished the novel, he decided to rewrite it – changing the voice of the narration from first person to third. He does all of his writing by hand in pencil, so he had set for himself a formidable task. In September of last year, he shared with me that the work of rewriting the novel had bogged down because of injuries to his hand and forearm. By February, he was still struggling to finish the rewrite. Needless to say, I have been waiting with bated breath for the new novel to be published. It finally hit the bookstores and Amazon.com a few weeks ago.

Irving retraces familiar ground in his latest fictional offering – a tome of over 300,000 words. He returns to familiar places – Exeter, Amsterdam – and he revisits familiar themes – the search for a meaningful relationship with a missing or neglectful parent. As is the case in most of his works, Irving employs sexual themes – not gratuitously – but as a diaphanous scrim upon which to project the development of his character’s sense of self and their place in the world. The world of tattoos – the cadre of artists who create them and the menagerie of individuals who use their bodies as blank canvases for the tattooists’ needles – serves as a leitmotif for the indelible impression that persons have on one another. In the novel, some of the minor characters are sketched lightly – like tattoos that are only outlined and not filled in, while the core characters are limned in full color – like tattoos that have been lavishly shaded.

Irving traces the picaresque adventures of the protagonist, the actor Jack Burns, from his view of the world as a four year-old child “sleeping in the needles” with his tattoo artist mother, Alice, to the denouement of the adult Jack’s reunion with his father, William, a gifted church organist addicted to having himself tattooed. The story is part freak show, part soap opera, part film noir, part grand opera, and part sweet odyssey. And it is all Irving at his best. This book was worth the wait and worth the physical pain that Irving endured in getting the voice of the narration tuned just right – like a delicate church organ whose complex array of ranks of pipes need to be calibrated just so to complement one another with overwhelming power and haunting beauty. The characters in this novel got under my skin – tattooed there by the needle of Irving sharp imagination and his indelible way of depicting the human condition and our struggle to be known and loved.

If you already appreciate Irving’s work, you will not be disappointed in Until I Find You. If you are new to Irving’s writings, his latest book is a good place to begin to acquire a taste for his unique way of viewing and describing the world.

As always, I look forward to your comments.



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