Until I Find Youby John Irving
Until I Find You is the story of the actor Jack Burns – his life, loves, celebrity and astonishing search for the truth about his parents.
When he is four years old, Jack travels with his mother Alice, a tattoo artist, to several North Sea ports in search of his father, William Burns. From Copenhagen to Amsterdam, William, a brilliant church/b>
Until I Find You is the story of the actor Jack Burns – his life, loves, celebrity and astonishing search for the truth about his parents.
When he is four years old, Jack travels with his mother Alice, a tattoo artist, to several North Sea ports in search of his father, William Burns. From Copenhagen to Amsterdam, William, a brilliant church organist and profligate womanizer, is always a step ahead – has always just departed in a wave of scandal, with a new tattoo somewhere on his body from a local master or “scratcher.”
Alice and Jack abandon their quest, and Jack is educated at schools in Canada and New England – including, tellingly, a girls’ school in Toronto. His real education consists of his relationships with older women – from Emma Oastler, who initiates him into erotic life, to the girls of St. Hilda’s, with whom he first appears on stage, to the abusive Mrs. Machado, whom he first meets when sent to learn wrestling at a local gym.
Too much happens in this expansive, eventful novel to possibly summarize it all. Emma and Jack move to Los Angeles, where Emma becomes a successful novelist and Jack a promising actor. A host of eccentric minor characters memorably come and go, including Jack’s hilariously confused teacher the Wurtz; Michelle Maher, the girlfriend he will never forget; and a precocious child Jack finds in the back of an Audi in a restaurant parking lot. We learn about tattoo addiction and movie cross-dressing, “sleeping in the needles” and the cure for cauliflower ears. And John Irving renders his protagonist’s unusual rise through Hollywood with the same vivid detail and range of emotions he gives to the organ music Jack hears as a child in European churches. This is an absorbing and moving book about obsession and loss, truth and storytelling, the signs we carry on us and inside us, the traces we can’t get rid of.
Jack has always lived in the shadow of his absent father. But as he grows older – and when his mother dies – he starts to doubt the portrait of his father’s character she painted for him when he was a child. This is the cue for a second journey around Europe in search of his father, from Edinburgh to Switzerland, towards a conclusion of great emotional force.
A melancholy tale of deception, Until I Find You is also a swaggering comic novel, a giant tapestry of life’s hopes. It is a masterpiece to compare with John Irving’s great novels, and restates the author’s claim to be considered the most glorious, comic, moving novelist at work today.
“Bittersweet . . . moving.”
“Until I Find You . . . cuts closer to the bone than any of [Irving’s] previous works.”
Praise for John Irving:
John Irving has received awards from the Rockefeller Foundation, the National Endowment for the Arts and the Guggenheim Foundation; he has won an O. Henry Award, a National Book Award and an Oscar.
“Irving’s novels are perceptive and precise reflections of the world around us.”
—The Washington Post Book World
“John Irving is one of the very finest writers alive today.”
—The Associated Press
“A serious artist of remarkable powers.”
“Irving’s popularity is not hard to understand. His world is really the world according to nearly everyone.”
“A premier storyteller, master of the tragicomic and among the first rank of contemporary novelists.”
—Los Angeles Times Book Review
“[Irving’s] instincts are so basically sound, his talent for storytelling so bright and strong that he gets down to the truth of his time.
—The New York Times Book Review
“John Irving is a writer of prodigious talent.”
“John Irving is devoted to his people and his plots in a way that makes him unique among the most popular and widely read of the living American novelists. He has become his generation’s Dickens.”
“He is among the very best storytellers at work today. At the base of Irving’s own moral concerns is a rare and lasting regard for human kindness.”
—The Philadelphia Inquirer
Praise for The Fourth Hand:
“A rich and deeply moving tale. . .Vintage Irving: A story of two very disparate people, and the strange ways we grow. . . . Irving’s novels are perceptive and precise reflections of the world around us.”
—The Washington Post Book World
“Using comedy, satiric social commentary and his adroit ability to tell a good yarn, Irving proffers a sweet love story with the very serious underlying theme of human transformation.”
“John Irving is one of the very finest writers alive today.”
—The Associated Press
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Read an Excerpt
In the Care of Churchgoers and Old Girls
According to his mother, Jack Burns was an actor before he was an actor, but Jack’s most vivid memories of childhood were those moments when he felt compelled to hold his mother’s hand. He wasn’t acting then.
Of course we don’t remember much until we’re four or five years old — and what we remember at that early age is very selective or incomplete, or even false. What Jack recalled as the first time he felt the need to reach for his mom’s hand was probably the hundredth or two hundredth time.
Preschool tests revealed that Jack Burns had a vocabulary beyond his years, which is not uncommon among only children accustomed to adult conversation — especially only children of single parents. But of greater significance, according to the tests, was Jack’s capacity for consecutive memory, which, when he was three, was comparable to that of a nine-year-old. At four, his retention of detail and understanding of linear time were equal to an eleven-year-old’s. (The details included, but were not limited to, such trivia as articles of clothing and the names of streets.)
These test results were bewildering to Jack’s mother, Alice, who considered him to be an inattentive child; in her view, Jack’s propensity for daydreaming made him immature for his age.
Nevertheless, in the fall of 1969, when Jack was four and had not yet started kindergarten, his mother walked with him to the corner of Pickthall and Hutchings Hill Road in Forest Hill, which was a nice neighborhood in Toronto. They were waiting for school to be let out, Alice explained, so that Jack could see the girls.
St. Hilda’s was then called “a church school for girls,” from kindergarten through grade thirteen — at that time still in existence, in Canada — and Jack’s mother had decided that this was where Jack would begin his schooling, although he was a boy. She waited to tell him of her decision until the main doors of the school opened, as if to greet them, and the girls streamed through in varying degrees of sullenness and exultation and prettiness and slouching disarray.
“Next year,” Alice announced, “St. Hilda’s is going to admit boys. Only a very few boys, and only up to grade four.”
Jack couldn’t move; he could barely breathe. Girls were passing him on all sides, some of them big and noisy, all of them in uniforms in those colors Jack Burns later came to believe he would wear to his grave — gray and maroon. The girls wore gray sweaters or maroon blazers over their white middy blouses.
“They’re going to admit you,” Jack’s mother told him. “I’m arranging it.”
“How?” he asked.
“I’m still figuring that out,” Alice replied.
The girls wore gray pleated skirts with gray kneesocks, which Canadians called “knee-highs.” It was Jack’s first look at all those bare legs. He didn’t yet understand how the girls were driven by some interior unrest to push their socks down to their ankles, or at least below their calves — despite the school rule that knee-highs should be worn knee-high.
Jack Burns further observed that the girls didn’t see him standing there, or they looked right through him. But there was one — an older girl with womanly hips and breasts, and lips as full as Alice’s. She locked onto Jack’s eyes, as if she were powerless to avert her gaze.
At the age of four, Jack wasn’t sure if he was the one who couldn’t look away from her, or if she was the one who was trapped and couldn’t look away from him. Whichever the case, her expression was so knowing that she frightened him. Perhaps she had seen what Jack would look like as an older boy, or a grown man, and what she saw in him riveted her with longing and desperation. (Or with fear and degradation, Jack Burns would one day conclude, because this same older girl suddenly looked away.)
Jack and his mom went on standing in the sea of girls, until the girls’ rides had come and gone, and those on foot had left not even the sound of their shoes behind, or their intimidating but stimulating laughter. However, there was still enough warmth in the early-fall air to hold their scent, which Jack reluctantly inhaled and confused with perfume. With most of the girls at St. Hilda’s, it was not their perfume that lingered in the air; it was the smell of the girls themselves, which Jack Burns would never grow used to or take for granted. Not even by the time he left grade four.
“But why am I going to school here?” Jack asked his mother, when the girls had gone. Some fallen leaves were all that remained in motion on the quiet street corner.
“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.
In that fall of the year before Jack’s admission to St. Hilda’s, his mother was full of surprises. After showing him the uniformed girls, who would soon dominate his life, Alice announced that she would work her way through northern Europe in search of Jack’s runaway dad. She knew the North Sea cities where he was most likely to be hiding from them; together they would hunt him down and confront him with his abandoned responsibilities. Jack Burns had often heard his mother refer to the two of them as his father’s “abandoned responsibilities.” But even at the age of four, Jack had come to the conclusion that his dad had left them for good — in Jack’s case, before he was born.
And when his mom said she would work her way through these foreign cities, Jack knew what her work was. Like her dad, Alice was a tattoo artist; tattooing was the only work she knew.
In the North Sea cities on their itinerary, other tattooists would give Alice work. They knew she’d been apprenticed to her father, a well-known tattooer in Edinburgh — officially, in the Port of Leith — where Jack’s mom had suffered the misfortune of meeting his dad. It was there he got her pregnant, and subsequently left her.
In Alice’s account, Jack’s father sailed on the New Scotland, which docked in Halifax. When he was gainfully employed, he would send for her — or so he had promised. But Alice said she never heard from him — only of him. Before moving on from Halifax, Jack’s dad had cut quite a swath.
Born Callum Burns, Jack’s father changed his first name to William when he was still in university. His father was named Alasdair, which William said was Scots enough for the whole family. In Edinburgh, at the time of his scandalous departure for Nova Scotia, William Burns had been an associate of the Royal College of Organists, which meant that he had a diploma in organ-playing in addition to his bachelor’s in music. When he met Jack’s mother, William was the organist at South Leith Parish Church; Alice was a choirgirl there.
For an Edinburgh boy with upper-class pretensions and a good education — William Burns had gone to Heriot’s before studying music at the University of Edinburgh — a first job playing the organ in lower-class Leith might have struck him as slumming. But Jack’s dad liked to joke that the Church of Scotland paid better than the Scottish Episcopal Church. While William was an Episcopalian, he liked it just fine at the South Leith Parish, where it was said that eleven thousand souls were buried in the graveyard, although there were not more than three hundred gravestones.
Gravestones for the poor were not permitted. But at night, Jack’s mom told him, people brought the ashes of loved ones and scattered them through the fence of the graveyard. The thought of so many souls blowing around in the dark gave the boy nightmares, but that church — if only because of its graveyard — was a popular place, and Alice believed she had died and gone to Heaven when she started singing for William there.
In South Leith Parish Church, the choir and the organ were behind the congregation. There were not more than twenty seats for the choir — the women in front, the men in back. For the duration of the sermon, William made a point of asking Alice to lean forward in the front row, so that he could see all of her. She wore a blue robe — “blue-jay blue,” she told Jack — and a white collar. Jack’s mom fell in love with his dad that April of 1964, when he first came to play the organ.
“We were singing the hymns of the Resurrection,” was how Alice put it, “and there were crocuses and daffodils in the graveyard.” (Doubtless all those ashes that were secretly scattered there benefited the flowers.)
Alice took the young organist, who was also her choirmaster, to meet her father. Her dad’s tattoo parlor was called Persevere, which is the motto of the Port of Leith. It was William’s first look at a tattoo shop, which was on either Mandelson Street or Jane Street. In those days, Jack’s mom explained, there was a rail bridge across Leith Walk, joining Mandelson to Jane, but Jack could never remember on which street she said the tattoo parlor was. He just knew that they lived there, in the shop, under the rumble of the trains.
His mother called this “sleeping in the needles” — a phrase from between the wars. “Sleeping in the needles” meant that, when times were tough, you slept in the tattoo parlor — you had nowhere else to live. But it was also what was said, on occasion, when a tattoo artist died — as Alice’s father had — in the shop. Thus, by both definitions of the phrase, her dad had always slept in the needles.
Alice’s mother had died in childbirth, and her father — whom Jack never met — had raised her in the tattoo world. In Jack’s eyes, his mom was unique among tattoo artists because she’d never been tattooed. Her dad had told her that she shouldn’t get a tattoo until she was old enough to understand a few essential things about herself; he must have meant those things that would never change.
“Like when I’m in my sixties or seventies,” Jack’s mom used to say to him, when she was still in her twenties. “You should get your first tattoo after I’m dead,” she told him, which was her way of saying that he shouldn’t even think about getting tattooed.
Alice’s dad took an instant dislike to William Burns, who got his first tattoo the day the two men met. The tattoo gripped his right thigh, where William could read it when he was sitting on the toilet — the opening notes to an Easter hymn he’d been rehearsing with Alice, the words to which began, “Christ the Lord is risen today.” Without the words, you’d have to read music, and be sitting very close to Jack’s father — perhaps on an adjacent toilet — to recognize the hymn.
But then and there, upon giving the talented young organist his first tattoo, Alice’s dad told her that William would surely become an “ink addict,” a “collector” — meaning he was one of those guys who would never stop with the first tattoo, or with the first twenty tattoos. He would go on getting tattooed, until his body was a sheet of music and every inch of his skin was covered by a note — a dire prediction but one that failed to warn Alice away. The tattoo-crazy organist had already stolen her heart.
But Jack Burns had heard most of this story by the time he was four. What came as a surprise, when his mother announced their upcoming European trip, was what she told him next: “If we don’t find your father by this time next year, when you’ll be starting school, we’ll forget all about him and get on with our lives.”
Why this was such a shock was that, from Jack’s earliest awareness that his father was missing — worse, that he had “absconded” — Jack and his mother had done a fair amount of looking for William Burns, and Jack had assumed they always would. The idea that they could “forget all about him” was more foreign to the boy than the proposed journey to northern Europe; nor had Jack known that, in his mom’s opinion, his starting school was of such importance.
She’d not finished school herself. Alice had long felt inferior to William’s university education. William’s parents were both elementary-school teachers who gave private piano lessons to children on the side, but they had a high regard for artistic tutelage of a more professional kind. In their estimation, it was beneath their son to play the organ at South Leith Parish Church — and not only because of the class friction that existed in those days between Edinburgh and Leith. (There were differences between the Scottish Episcopal Church and the Church of Scotland, too.)
Alice’s father was not a churchgoer of any kind. He’d sent Alice to church and choir practice to give her a life outside the tattoo parlor, never imagining that she would meet her ruin in the church and at choir practice — or that she would bring her unscrupulous seducer to the shop to be tattooed!
It was William’s parents who insisted that, although he was the principal organist for the South Leith Parish, he accept an offer to be the assistant organist at Old St. Paul’s. What mattered to them was that Old St. Paul’s was Scottish Episcopal — and it was in Edinburgh, not in Leith.
What captivated William was the organ. He’d started piano lessons at six and had not touched an organ before he was nine, but at seven or eight he began to stick bits of paper above the piano keys — imagining they were organ stops. He’d already begun to dream about playing the organ, and the organ he dreamed about was the Father Willis at Old St. Paul’s.
If, in his parents’ opinion, to be the assistant organist at Old St. Paul’s was more prestigious than being the principal organist at South Leith Parish Church, William just wanted to get his hands on the Father Willis. In Old St. Paul’s, Jack’s mother told him, the acoustics were a contributing factor to the organ’s fame. The boy would later wonder if she meant that almost any organ would have sounded good there, because of the reverberation time — that is, the time it takes for a sound to diminish by sixty decibels — being better than the organ.
Alice remembered attending what she called “an organ marathon” at Old St. Paul’s. Such an event must have been for fund-raising purposes — a twenty-four-hour organ concert, with a different organist performing every hour or half hour. Who played when was, of course, a hierarchical arrangement; the best musicians performed when they were most likely to be heard, the others at the more unsociable hours. Young William Burns got to play before midnight — if only a half hour before.
From the Hardcover edition.
Meet the Author
John Irving was born in New Hampshire. He studied at universities in America and Europe and published his first novel, Setting Free the Bears, at the age of twenty-six. The World According to Garp, published in 1978 to phenomenal acclaim, firmly established him as one of the most inventive and talented novelists in America.
During the 1980s John Irving wrote a series of absorbing and celebrated books: The Hotel New Hampshire, The Cider House Rules and A Prayer for Owen Meany. In these novels his originality and striking vision came brilliantly to the fore, along with his trademark subjects – as wide-ranging as feminism, religion, wrestling, sex and New England life.
More recent novels include the complex bestseller A Son of the Circus, the dark and funny novel A Widow for One Year and The Fourth Hand, a black comedy that was another popular success.
Several of John Irving’s novels have been made into films, and in 2000 he was awarded an Oscar for the screenplay for The Cider House Rules. He described the difficult, decade-long journey from page to screen in My Movie Business. He is also the author of Trying to Save Piggy Sneed and The Imaginary Girlfriend, memoirs of writing and wrestling.
In 1992, John Irving was inducted into the National Wrestling Hall of Fame in Stillwater, Oklahoma. In 2001, he was elected to the American Academy of Arts and Letters. He lives in Vermont and Toronto.
- Date of Birth:
- March 2, 1942
- Place of Birth:
- Exeter, New Hampshire
- B.A., University of New Hampshire, 1965; also studied at University of Vienna; M.F.A., Iowa Writers' Workshop, 1967
Most Helpful Customer Reviews
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I liked the first third of the book. The tattoo artists and tromping around Scandanavia i found great reading. But as Jack grew older i basically lost interest. Emma was the most interesting character but she died off early. I slogged through the rest of the book because i can't just stop reading a book, i force myself to finish. The Hollywood name dropping and Jack's success as a movie star just didn't do it for me. In the end i didn't care. I enjoyed Hotel New Hampshire, Owen Meany and Garp so i expected more.
I love John Irving. A Prayer for Owen Meany is one of the most compelling, intuitive and thoughtful novels ever penned. Until I Find You, on the other hand, is an old man's sexual fantasy run amok. The women characters are either flat, two-dimensional, nuts or simply incomprehensible. Jack himself is a dull blank slate. And the gratuitous sexual molestation strains credibility, good taste and interest. By the 50th time Emma took his 'little guy' into her hands and cooed at it I wanted to throw the book at the wall. John, you can do better.
I enjoyed this book because I enjoy John Irving's writing style. The characters were vibrant and quirky as usual. My favorite character was William Burns because of his many layers. He is the mystery of this novel and I very much enjoyed meeting him finally. However, I didn't enjoy the plot all that much. The sexuality in this sometimes seemed far fetched. I can understand a few events happening to one character but everything was over the top. I liked the overall theme of how we all are performers in life and how it affects us but felt this novel fell a tad short of Irving's usual adventure. Expressing the latter, I must also reveal that this novel still falls under an epic novel and will take you for quite a ride. Keep an open mind.
I did not enjoy reading this book. That having been said, I still think it is a good book worth reading. There is something to be said for Irving's ability to envelope the reader into his worlds to the point that we empathize greatly with the characters involved. The ending brought the book back for me because of how the author articulated the father's feelings of joy that his son found him. I agree with several of the reviews I've read that spell out how unattached to Jack we feel throughout the course of the book. However, by the end of the book I felt like I could empathize with the relationship between Jack and his father upon finding each other. The entire book Jack is searching for something (his father, his identity) and at the end Irving provides a conclusion in which that something is found - but from the father's point of view. This was hard to understand during the course of reading the book because it seemed to drag and did not keep me at the edge of my seat like Owen Meany and Cider House did. Looking back, though, Jack's character is supposed to be detached because he himself does not know himself. This is an intelligent literary device that is overlooked as simple poor writing. I'm not sure Irving will ever top Owen Meany, but I look forward to every attempt of his to do so.
Hester the molester, Jenny Fields, Garp, even a mention of Binky! And of course Ruth's voyeuristic tendencies with prostitutes. Bears and elephants and wrestlers, OH MY! It is always worth the five year wait for the next John Irving tale. I must say though, that this is the first time I've recognized characters from the past. It was a pleasant reminder of just how gifted Mr.Irving is and why some twenty years ago I fell in love with Garp. For those of you who have never read an Irving novel, get ready for a treat. For all the rest of you, be happy that the past five years are over!
I eagerly anticipate reading any of John Irving's novels and his latest certainly does not disappoint. The characters, as always, are flawed, yet endearingly so. The situations are at once heartbreaking and uplifting. Throughout the novel's pages, every emotion is evoked, leaving you feeling as if you've experienced the characters' joys and pains along with them. As far as the length, who wants to give up new friends quickly?
I think this is my favorite Irving. I literally cried, and laughed while reading it, there is something so emotionally raw, all-consuming in it. I am amazed by Irving's original voice, and dizzying talent as always, incredible.
I've always enjoyed reading John Irving's novels with his eccentric, but caring characters and wildly implausible incidents that somehow seem both real and satisfying. Irving's humor, intelligence and compassion always insured an engaging experience. All of that is also true with this book, except that these events are more personal and less camoflauged. The author's deliberate vulnerability makes the intimacy painful to the reader. It's difficult to reccomend this book because it deals so thoroughly with child abuse-- sexual abuse, as well as abandonment, neglect and betrayal. Still, the writing is wonderful. The author's strategy in organizing the book has the story weaving in and out and back on itself. By adding new layers of experience and perspective, he transforms the scenes that he'd described earlier, changing the characters, the order, and even the consequences. The whole first half of the book (told in chronological order) is retold in the second half as if it were a puzzle being solved. It is as if the lighting on a familiar set were changed to reveal and highlight subtle, new aspects, redefining the scene. It's also very much about storytelling-- many kinds of storytelling: his purported memories, Emma's scary stories,later, her novels and the screenplay, his acting, his trans-gender roles, his mother's lies, his father's tatoos, his psychiatrist's theraputic journaling. There are as many layers as an onion. It'll take me a while longer to think about and understand it better. It's a wonderful book, but not an easy one to read.
Beginnings are hard. Endings are harder. And in the case of “Until I Find You,” both the beginning and the ending are quite rocky. The middle of the book, however (and in a novel of more than 800 pages, the middle is quite hefty) ...well, the middle is rather delightful. Reading this novel is like eating a gourmet sandwich beautifully crafted between slices of two-day old soggy bread. It pains me to fault Mr. Irving for his apparent meandering in the first section of this novel and for the disappointment of the novel’s conclusion. To be fair, no imaginable ending could have lived up to the inevitability of this tale’s conclusion. Irving’s masterful storytelling throughout the bulk of the novel sabotages its own ending. An empathetic reader—and as a lifelong fan of Irving’s work, I consider myself forgiving to a fault—can happily overlook the seemingly random details of the novel’s opening section as their impact and significance emerges clearly through the development of Jack Burns, the novel’s protagonist. But the ending. Not even a writer of Irving’s talent could have wheedled his way out of the trap he set for himself. This novel’s—and its main character’s—resemblance to numerous other Irving novels (most notably TS Garp in “The World According to Garp,” Homer Wells in “The Cider House Rules,” and Owen Meany in “A Prayer for Owen Meany”) is both its greatest strength and its most debilitating weakness. All of the hallmark Irving quirks and issues are there, but he’s handled them more artfully in those earlier novels. Jack—a budding actor with a talent for cross-dressing and a penchant for older women (who are, in fact, molesting him)—is an inscrutably complex character but almost certainly not the most likeable character in the novel. As he grows up without the guidance or support of a father, he becomes a true conundrum—an introverted actor. Halfway through the novel, the narrative pivots dramatically (to provide more details would certainly spoil the plot), but suffice it to say that Jack shifts his focus from constructing identities and stories to reconstructing identities and stories—he realizes that everything he thought he knew about the most important people in his life was a mere narrative construct, and he sets about attempting to reconstruct those narratives in a search for truth—quite an ironic undertaking for a man whose profession relies on his ability to create convincing fictions. In the end, Irving’s prose is—as ever—amusing and poignant (often at the same time), and this novel proves that he has regained his ability to weave a compelling tale around interesting characters, a skill that came into question in “The Fourth Hand,” the novel that preceded this one. While by no means his best work, “Until I Find You” demonstrates an imminent return to form for Irving—a form that I hope continues to evolve in his next novel.
I did not like this book at all and have really enjoyed Irvings other works. I have never written a review before but felt so strongly about how bad this book was that i had to do it. I kept hoping that it would get better as the book progressed but Jack became even more unlikable and uninteresting. Bssically the story revolved around his and everyone else,s obsession with his penis and though i thought there might be some underlying theme or story of value tucked away into the midst of the pages I never found one. I could not finish it. I practically paid someone to take it out of my house.