Triviana

Oh dad, poor dad, why did mom
hang you in the closet?

''Until I Find You''
By John Orr
(Random House, 848 pp., $27.95)

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Reviewed by John Orr
July 2005

Some of John Irving's earlier novels, such as ''A Prayer for Owen Meany'' and ''The Cider House Rules,'' are captivating from the first page. A few hundred pages into his ''Until I Find You,'' many readers may find themselves still waiting for him to dazzle, to impress, to capture their deeper interest. And even when, a good two-thirds of the way through, Irving finally did something that is impressive, it's still difficult to like this book. Which is disturbing, because Irving is one of the greater novelists of the 20th century, at least.

The novel opens with a dull quote from William Maxwell about memory. The most relevant part is "In any case, in talking about the past we lie with every breath we draw.''

So warned, we move on to the story of actor Jack Burns, whose earliest memory is of the time he felt a need for his mother.

It was 1969, he was 4 years old, and his mother was showing him the Toronto school in which she planned to enroll him after a trip to Europe. But why this school, St. Hilda's, which previously had enrolled only girls, he asks his mother, Alice.

"'Because it's a good school,' Alice answered. 'And you'll be safe with the girls,' she added.

"Jack must not have thought so, because he instantly reached for his mom's hand.''

But before school, Alice takes Jack on a tour of North Sea cities, starting in Copenhagen, in search of his "runaway father,'' William Burns, a brilliant organist and a full-body tattoo addict. Alice is a tattoo artist and can always find work in port cities. She becomes known in the tattoo world as "Daughter Alice.''

The story Daughter Alice tells Jack is that Burns seduced her and ran off, and that she is pursuing him across Northern Europe to get him to be a good father. So we get a detailed tour of the sorts of neighborhoods where sailors would go to get drunk, get women and get tattoos.

Jack grows up thinking of his father as a kind of sleaze and worrying he will turn out the same way.

He manages to survive being dumped in a girls' school, where the girls introduce him to sex by manual stimulation. A gang leader of those girls is Emma Oastler, who turns out to be his friend and more of a guardian angel than he understands for a long time.

And he learns he has a gift for acting. Indeed, in the school plays he is often cast in the female leads because in drag he's a better actress than the actual girls.

He learns that life isn't acting; it's improv.

Jack grows up to be a beautiful man and a Hollywood actor. Emma remains his friend, but is never his lover.

The reason Emma never makes love with Jack, as they both pursue their successful Hollywood lives -- she is a screenwriter -- turns out to be tragic. But in her death, she continues to take care of Jack by leaving him a mostly finished screenplay of a novel she'd written. Jack finishes the screenplay, a movie is made of it, and he wins an Oscar.

Which leads to some fun stuff, because Irving himself won an Oscar, for the screenplay of "The Cider House Rules.'' So, are the little stories that Irving tells here actually what happened to him that night?

"If you've just won your first Academy Award, fully understanding that you might never win another one, you're not inclined to put it down on the floor of a public men's room -- nor would you attempt to balance it on the urinal by maintaining perilous little contact with Oscar's sleek head by means of your chin.''

Struggling to open his pants, he sees another man in the restroom, "broad-shouldered, with a weight-lifter's crafted body.'' Jack doesn't recognize him until he hears the man's accent.

"'Would you like me to give you a hand with that?' Arnold Schwarzenegger asked.

"'Goodness, I hope he meant he would give you a hand with the Oscar!' Miss Wurtz said later, when Jack told her the story.'' (Miss Wurtz is his ancient grade-school drama teacher, and his date at the Oscars.)

When Daughter Alice dies, Jack finally starts looking for his father. Which leads to the twist of this book, which is something like the surprise of M. Night Shyamalan's movie "The Sixth Sense,'' in that it might move some readers to want to go back and reread the start of the book to see how Jack's memories varied from the truth of what happened in his life.

Except this book is insufficiently interesting for most people to want to do that. And really, the clues are there, early in this long tale, so it's not that big a surprise.

So, maybe, the big lessons of this book might be that gee, some absent fathers aren't really deadbeats, but maybe have been forced to stay away for the greater good. And that maybe some mothers, who are supposed to be warm and loving, turn out to be lying sociopaths with non-existent sexual morals.

When Jack learns the sad truth of his childhood and what happened between his eccentric parents, he does what he can to make life a little better for those who survive.

And that's about as profound as this book gets in its 824 pages. True, the characterizations are masterful, but so long a book needs to teach us something new. Most of us are already aware that parents sometimes lie to their children, and that the process of adulthood is making a real life from the pieces of fiction.

Life's improv.