Until I Find You, by John Irving

A case of swollen organs
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The Independent Culture

The opening section of Until I Find You is a somewhat laboured account of Alice's quest for William, for whom she disastrously pines. Irving acquaints us with every organ, hotel and red-light district in the Baltic ports through which, with four-year-old Jack in tow, she tracks the elusive William. Irving has fallen hard for the lore of the tattoo parlour, and the reader is spared little. He's also well briefed on great organs from Stockholm to Amsterdam, and they could serve as a metaphor for the novel itself: a massive, complex, noisy construction with all its stops pulled out.

Alice abandons her search, returns to Toronto and enrols Jack at a private school. Here he discovers his acting talent under the guidance of Miss Wurz, the drama teacher who casts him in the transvestite roles for which he will later become famous. Here, too, he meets Emma Oastler, a hard-boiled 11-year-old, to whose care he is entrusted. Emma takes an unnatural interest in Jack and his sexual development, which she oversees.

Mentor and tormentor, she and her girlfriends affectionately abuse him, as though grooming him for a lover. But their unlikely friendship remains platonic, with penis- and breast-holding its limits. Meanwhile, their mothers are conducting a not-so-secret affair, and all four are soon sharing Mrs Oastler's sumptuous house. Jack takes up wrestling and falls prey to the voracious Mrs Machado.

After university, he and Emma are reunited in Los Angeles, where he becomes a movie star and she a bestselling author. These chapters have more panache than credibility but, along with the school sections, are the most cohesive and entertaining. With Irving relishing the pure hell of adolescent girls, the lunacy of the film industry and Jack's erotic adventures, the novel tips into a picaresque sex farce that falls somewhere between Robertson Davies and Jacqueline Suzanne.

Irving establishes an uncomfortable tension between tone and content, the rollicking good humour in contrast to some distressing scenes. In fact, narrative voice is the unifying force of this sprawling novel. At its best, it is wonderfully sustained and very funny, full of riffs and by-ways, synopses of imaginary novels and screenplays, extended quotes from poetry and song. But this can also be trying: Alice's Scottish ditty is printed in full three times.

In his thirties, the irresistible Jack becomes increasingly "weird" and notorious. Emma and Alice are dead, and he is under the care of an older woman psychiatrist. He wonders "what had been so different or wrong about him that those girls had ever thought that it was acceptable to abuse him". To find out, he again goes in search of his father, recapitulating the trawl through those Baltic ports, which, by now, feel rather stale. Churches, tattoo parlours and prostitutes are all revisited. On the other hand, Irving sometimes seems to dream up new episodes just for the fun of it. Either way, there's a lot of superfluous material.

The real problem with the second quest is motivation. Alice is revealed as more malign than dotty, but Jack's parents' behaviour in the 1960s remains unconvincing. The plot creaks, and the peeling away of layers of deception seems simply routine.

Irving's great strength is his capacity for generating memorable characters. What he likes best is herding them all into a big set piece and turning them loose. Vivid and eccentric, they proliferate in the manner of Dickens, his favourite author, though their bawdy profusion is more like Rabelais. But Jack and Emma are the novel's emotional core. Their enduring friendship proves that even in cases of "extreme but acceptable dysfunction", soulmates can devise a way of being together.

Mary Flanagan's 'Adele' is published by Bloomsbury