There's a moment in Until I Find You, John Irving's leviathan new novel, when the protagonist, pretty-boy actor Jack Burns, imagines that he's performing to "an audience of one." He pretends that his long-absent father is the only person watching him. It's his technique for focusing, for shutting out the crowd.
Irving, as a competitive wrestler in his twenties, also imagined that his biological father, whom he never knew, watched his matches. When he became a writer, Irving fantasized that his father read every word he wrote. Until now, Irving always denied the autobiographical resonance of his recurring depictions of fatherless heroes. Even when pressed by his close family and friends, he never admitted to being curious about his biological father, John Wallace Blunt, who divorced his mother when Irving was two and was never mentioned in his childhood home.
Yet over the seven-year gestation of Until I Find You the story of the son of a woman tattoo artist who, as an adult, resumes his mother's abortive search for his organist father Irving came to acknowledge that he often wondered about his father. "I was in denial," he says. "I had always wanted to find my father. It was just easier for me to imagine him than to go looking for him. In a sense, I've been inventing my father all my writing life."
Until I Find You was lambasted by critics upon its release in the United States, with Michiko Kakutani of The New York Times calling it "a tedious, self-indulgent, cruelly eye-glazing read." But Irving being that rare creature a literary writer whose books invariably ride high in the charts the caws of critics are unlikely to inhibit sales.
Despite his popularity, Irving is far from hip. He's an unabashed throwback, writing unfashionably long, digressive melodramas in the 19th-century tradition. Irving named his Labrador "Dickens" in deference to his literary idol.
"The passage of time, as with most 19th-century novels, is as significant to my stories as any character. Among our contemporaries, the novelists that I most enjoy reading Salman Rushdie, Gunter Grass, Garcia Marquez, Robertson Davie, Umberto Eco are 19th century storytellers."
He's shamelessly middlebrow. "I'm not an intellectual. My novels aren't founded on ideas. They're founded on characters and a good story as elaborate a plot as I can imagine."
Irving always felt that searching for his father would constitute a betrayal of his stepfather, Colin Irving, whom he loved as a father and whose name he took after Colin and Irving's mother married when Irving was six. "It was also the fear of, what if I did go and find him and he said, 'So what?'" Irving hoped that his father would seek him out after he gained media notice with his breakout 1978 novel The World According to Garp. When Blunt failed to show, Irving decided that he never cared about his son. At a point in his career where most writers would have been exhilarated, Irving was sunk in despair.
Garp established the motifs of absent fathers and strong mothers that came to dominate Irving's oeuvre. In the novel, a feminist activist conceives her son by a lobotomized pilot on his deathbed. Garp also anticipated Irving's later novels in its mix of heartache, promiscuous sex and gruesome, off-the-wall farce. These elements coalesced in the famous scene where a woman accidentally bites off her lover's penis while fellating him in a driving car.
THREE YEARS after the Garp phenomenon, when Irving was divorcing his first wife, his mother obliquely raised the issue of his birth father for the first time. She handed him a package of letters that Blunt wrote to her from hospitals in China and India during World War II, in which he served as a pilot. The letters told of how, after his plane was shot down in Burma, Blunt trekked for 15 days with his flight crew into China.
Irving included excerpts from his father's 1943 letters in The Cider House Rules (1985), modeling a subplot on his father's war heroism. "It was my way of saying, 'Hello, out there! Do you recognize this?'" But again, Irving's call failed to bring Blunt to his door. The letters revealed that Irving's father wanted to have contact with his two-year-old son after divorcing his mother a request that she refused. Irving was floored by the revelation. Yet he remains unwilling to pass judgment on his mother.
"When I was getting divorced from my first wife, the most inarguable bond between us was that neither of us would ever have compromised the other one's ability to see as much of the children as we wanted. At that time, to have those letters of my father on my dining room table, it was inconceivable that she wouldn't let him. But I wasn't standing where she was in 1941, when people didn't talk about sexual mistakes or errors of that kind."
Irving is comfortable disclosing the ending of Until I Find You, arguing that it would have been impossible for Jack not to find his father without the reader feeling cheated, given the book's 820-page length. As is his habit, Irving wrote the ending first, where Jack encounters his father, insane, in a sanatorium. In 2001, Irving was contacted by a man who turned out to be his half-brother, Chris Blunt. Irving subsequently learnt that John Wallace Blunt had been manic-depressive and, in an uncanny coincidence, ended his days in a state mirroring that which Irving invented for Jack's father.
Yet the autobiographical traces don't stop at the missing father theme. In another echo of Irving's life, Jack undergoes his sexual initiation, aged 10, at the hands of his middle-aged wrestling partner, Mrs. Machado. Irving, who was 11 when he lost his virginity to an older woman, explains that only through making Jack a different age could he bear to write the scenes of sexual abuse.
"At the time, I never thought she was hurting me. I was very fond of her. I have no doubts that she probably thought she was doing me no harm. The seed of abuse is planted when you're then old enough to be having sex on your own initiative and you realize: This isn't the first time. It didn't register with me as an act of grievous wrongdoing until I had children of my own."
Like Jack, Irving's precocious sexual experience sparked an infatuation with older women that dogged him throughout his early adulthood. "If your primary sexual experience is with an older woman, the odds are that experience is going to compare pretty favorably to your first amateur gropings with a girl your age. There comes the damaging idea the notion that sex with the older woman is better. I had this unnatural attraction to women unsuitably not my age."
Initially, he wrote the novel in the first-person voice, taking the form of a monologue delivered by Jack to his psychiatrist. In early 2004, he submitted the novel to his publisher, thinking that it was complete. Almost immediately, he took the manuscript back, and spent the next nine months re-writing all 350,000 words of the novel in the third-person voice.
"The moment I changed the voice I no longer felt personally identified with Jack Burns. I could be more skillful in editing him. I'd written about the missing father many times before. There have been older women with younger men in other novels of mine. But I've never been as uncomfortably close to a character as I felt to Mr. Jack Burns."