“It is improper to describe making love to one’s sister,” John Irving writes in The Hotel New Hampshire (1981) when two siblings finally consummate their incestuous ardor. In fact, Irving does describe their lovemaking, but using humor, care, dignity, and grief—his tonal trademarks—he avoids prurient land mines. Throughout a nearly four-decade career (what other contemporary American writer has assembled such a commercially and critically successful body of work?), New Englander Irving has challenged our puritanical assumptions by treating sexual deviance as the norm. It is no small thing, then, to say that Until I Find You is his most erotically fraught work yet.
Irving’s 11th novel tells the story of Jack Burns, a bastard who grows up to be a movie star specializing in transvestite roles but who as a child is defined by the absence of his wayward father. As the book opens in 1969, Jack’s mother, Alice, a Dylan-besotted stoner and a revered tattooist by trade, travels with her son through the cities of the North Sea, searching for William Burns, a church organist and insatiable womanizer who flees his responsibilities. William is what tattooists call a “collector,” someone addicted to the needle’s prick, who won’t stop until he has covered his entire body in ink. In each port he visits, lusty William acquires a new tattoo and leaves behind a ravished young woman, sometimes of disturbingly tender age.
Unable to locate this rake, Alice returns to her native Canada, where she enrolls Jack at St. Hilda’s, a Toronto all-girls academy that also matriculates boys through grade four. Alice believes her lamb will be kept safe in these cozily feminine environs. But instead, unknown to her, the school’s bevy of spinster teachers and older students ignites Jack’s precocious sexuality. In a St. Hilda’s tradition, Jack receives a sixth-grade mentor, mustachioed Emma Oastler, a future novelist who terrifies his fellow pre-schoolers at story time with Snicket-worthy tales about the bat cave at the Royal Ontario Museum. Emma and her adolescent friends have heard all about Jack’s father. They eagerly anticipate the boy’s greatest fear: that he will turn out like William. “You’ve got lady-killer eyelashes,” one girl comments, when Jack catches his penis in his zipper while in the hallway. “When you’re old enough, you’re going to get your penis stuck in all kinds of places.”
Old enough means something altogether different to Emma, who plays after-school games with Jack’s “little guy.” Irving adroitly maneuvers a Scylla and Charybdis here. Emma, clearly afraid of boys her own age, is just as vulnerable as Jack, and their charmingly juvenile forays typically involve fondling her mother’s underwear. That she’s older and that she accelerates his sexual maturation does not necessarily mean that she abuses her willing participant. Never exactly erotic, never exactly not, the novel’s most honest relationship is their strange love, which stands in contrast to Jack’s actual molestation by a pedophile.
In a recent New York Times profile, Irving revealed publicly that, as an adult, he went in search of his biological father, and also that he had been molested as a child. Rape and oedipal conflict are the thematic hydra of Irving’s oeuvre, fully emerging in The Hotel New Hampshire and The World According to Garp (1978) and returning uncannily in 1998’s A Widow for One Year. Unlike Garp or Widow‘s Ruth Cole, Jack is not a writer. But like many thespians (and it goes without saying, many writers), Jack chooses his craft, in part, to efface his haunted identity. She “seemed to be biding her time; she held herself back, she seemed detached,” Jack observes about an actress girlfriend. “Or was Claudia merely holding a mirror up to Jack, stymieing him in the same ways he stymied her?”
Until I Find You may stymie the reader with its own tactics of emotional distancing. For a story about psychological reckoning—Jack undergoes five years of intensive therapy to sort the damage done—it feels oddly reticent. Irving reportedly rewrote the novel after the manuscript had been accepted by his publisher, switching from first- to third-person narration. At over 800 pages, the book is easily his longest, and as a result of so much revision the Victorian serendipity that usually animates his palpable worlds seems flatter here, a transparent artifice without something legibly human behind it.
But maybe Jack Burns, the aloof international celebrity, must remain an enigma to the reader since he is a mystery to himself. As his mother’s beloved Zimmerman sings, “Something is happening here/But you don’t know what it is.”