820 Pages on John Irving’s Penis
And Other Horrors
by John Irving
(Random House) $27.95
Now I'm going to tell you how to write a Best-Selling and Critically Acclaimed Novel by John Irving: take one oddly passive main character who lacks one or both parents, insert some sort of an incestuous relationship, have the main character learn how to wrestle, include a lot of weird asides and accidents and leaps of faith, then build to a bullshit ending that is so Spiritually Satisfying that you could adapt it for Hollywood without changing a word. Irving's new novel, Until I Find You, follows this formula to the letter, but it does have one (and only one) difference that makes it of note to those who follow the pop-lit magazines: Irving has spoken of his sexual abuse, at the tender age of 11, at the hands of an older woman. He also discovered that his biological father, who he never met, is dead, and was not a bad man like his mother said.
Irving's response to all this, at the age of 63, is to release a book that seems to be entirely about his penis's history and the treachery of women. The main character, Jack Burns, whose name implies pitiless wanking with no Vaseline, is dazzlingly gorgeous. Jack's mother, a tattoo artist, drags young Jack across Europe in search of his errant father, an aspiring organist named William. They meet any number of quirky supporting characters, among them a man who saves Jack's life (who is only referred to as the Littlest Soldier), then abandon their search for William because it's time for Jack to enroll in school. Since Jack's mother wants to protect him from becoming a heartless womanizer like his old man, Jack gets enrolled in an almost-all-women's school.
Naturally, since Jack is so heart-breakingly attractive, the girls at the school, especially his best friend, Emma, become irrationally absorbed in seeing his penis:
"...'Have a wet dream for me, little guy,' Emma said to Jack's penis..."
"...'Show me what the little guy knows, baby cakes.'..."
"...'That little guy is like a coming attraction, honey pie.'..."
"...Emma was engaged in one of her periodic checks on the progress of his penis, which seemed to render her melancholic..."
And on and on and on, until Jack learns self-defense and gets molested by his Portuguese kickboxing coach, Mrs. Machado. She renames Jack's schlong (because Irving is a master of dialect) "Meester Penis." We are treated to sentiments like: "...Jack's penis rose to the occasion with the stiffening determination of a war hero."
Enough. Emma grows up to be a popular novelist, Jack grows up to be an actor. After two very long death scenes, one set to Bob Dylan lyrics, Jack finds out that his mother lied to him. His father was actually a good guy! And he's still alive! So Jack retakes the trip that swallows the first quarter of this book, finding out all the ways that his mother lied to him—for instance, the Littlest Soldier turns out to be a young boy, and Jack's mother had sex with him, but Jack didn't want to remember it that way because that would mean that his mother was a molester like that Filthy Portuguese Kickboxer. Also, in the beginning of the book, they weren't chasing his father, but rather William was chasing them and Jack's mother (the heartless bitch!) finally made an improbable and illegal deal stipulating that William could never see Jack in person. In the end, Jack meets William, who's crazy, but in that loveable, Robin Williams sort of way, and all of Jack's friends, UNBEKNOWNST TO HIM, were sending Dad pictures and letters about his Lost Son's Progress Through Life. And that's the end.
Are you kidding me? This New York Times bestseller is an Edsel of a book that runs on bad writing and themes that Irving has beaten to death with a mallet since 1978. Molestation, of course, is horrible and not to be mocked, but to use molestation as a selling point for a mind-bendingly bad novel that's composed of a series of coincidences and frippery—that ought to be a crime. The fact that Irving's writing is third-rate and workmanlike at best, that he couldn't write a beautiful sentence if he hand-copied it out of David Copperfield, is beside the point. Irving is writing his private pain into the reading public's pain. People who love fiction need to stop enabling this mysteriously popular hack.