"Until I Find You" is quintessential John Irving. A classic bildungsroman, it traces the meandering life and artistic times of actor Jack Burns. It combines...

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“Until I Find You”
by John Irving
Random House, 824 pp., $27.95

“Until I Find You” is quintessential John Irving. A classic bildungsroman, it traces the meandering life and artistic times of actor Jack Burns. It combines the best elements of some of Irving’s finest works, including “The World According to Garp,” “A Prayer for Owen Meany” and “The Cider House Rules.” This 11th novel could be the capstone of Irving’s career.

Like many of Irving’s novels, “Until I Find You” has clear Dickensean influences. A son searches for his father. Characters have distinctive names. There is evidence of child molestation and sexual abuse. Irving ratches it up a notch with modern touches of tattoo artistry, wrestling events, motorcycle groups and insider tales of Hollywood. One character in the novel refers to a book she is writing as “an old-fashioned novel with a complicated plot and complex cast of characters.” The same can be said for the monumental “Until I Find You.”

Beginning in 1965, the book is divided into five almost equally long sections: “The North Sea,” “The Sea of Girls,” “Lucky,” “Sleeping in the Needles” and “Dr. Garcia.” Each part revolves around Jack’s picaresque adventures, as he moves from a stolen childhood of “abandoned responsibilities” into a treacherous adolescence toward a baggage-laden adulthood.

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When Jack is 4, his mother, Alice, an accomplished tattoo artist in Toronto, Canada, enrolls him in an all-girls school that has just begun to admit boys. Before his term begins, she takes him on a one-year search through the North Sea countries to find his father, William, a renowned church organist with a penchant for musical tattoos.

During this initial odyssey, Jack embarks upon an early sexual education. In Oslo, he develops one of Irving’s trademark character traits, an “older woman thing.” In Amsterdam, surrounded by prostitutes, Jack believes the women are “just giving good advice.” When it appears that William may have fled to Australia, mother and son return to Toronto.

In “The Sea of Girls,” Jack’s primary school experiences are sui generis. Mrs. Wicksteed is a stern patroness; Mrs. McQuat “may have been a dead person in a previous life”; Mrs. Wurtz, the drama teacher, establishes Jack’s theatrical signature through the “purposeful plundering” of classic novels. He plays female characters, from the “A-on-the breast Hester” to the “under-the-train-Anna” and the “maiden-no-more Tess.” A born heartbreaker, Jack meets his kindred spirit and lifelong friend, 12-year-old Emma Oastler. His sexual ally and complete confidante, she dubs him “Baby Cakes,” a nickname that sticks.

Between 1975 and 1992, the years covered in “Lucky,” Jack is on the fast track to fame. He has acquired wrestling skills, moved to school in Maine, blitzed through Exeter and settled at the University of New Hampshire because he likes its local movie theater. Meanwhile, school chum Emma has moved to Hollywood and urges Jack to join her. The rest is cinema history. Jack gets a break playing a transvestite hitchhiker; the film becomes a cult classic; Oscar nominations follow.

In part four, “Sleeping in the Needles” (“when times were tough you slept in the tattoo parlor”), Jack’s life starts to unravel. He retraces his steps from earlier in the novel and discovers that “so much of what you think you remember is a lie, the stuff of postcards.” The last and longest section of the novel, “Dr. Garcia,” includes Jack’s therapy sessions and an insider’s comic view of the 2000 Oscars (a subject Irving knows well since he won for the adapted screenplay of “The Cider House Rules”).

Irving has always had a knack for axiomatic tag lines. There was “Beware the undertoad” (“Garp”); “Keep passing the open windows” (“The Hotel New Hampshire”); “Good night, you princes of Maine, you kings of New England” (“Cider House”). In “Until I Find You,” Jack’s mother, Alice, admonishes, “Not around Jack” — as a result, Jack grows up in a world filled with half-truths. Irving has always been a first-rate storyteller. This one is a whopper. “Until I Find You” is a mega-labyrinth of a novel. Every page is worth it.

Robert Allen Papinchak writes reviews, articles, and interviews for numerous national publications.