Like Stephen King in the good old days, John Irving tells big, sprawling populist tales that often send literary critics off in a huff: As much as his books get praised, they also get dismissed as overlong, unfocused, sexually obsessive, full of irrelevant detail, and generally self-indulgent. All of which is often true. But they're still generally terrific yarns, endlessly creative, absorbing, and unpredictable. Surging back from his disappointing, uncharacteristically short 2002 novel The Fourth Hand, Irving hits all the usual critics' buttons with Until I Find You, an 800-page-plus monster that reads more like a miniseries than a single novel, but still goes down with the comfortable simplicity of a good fairy tale.
When the book launches in 1969, protagonist Jack Burns is a precocious 4-year-old being dragged from country to country by his tattoo-artist mother, along the trail of broken hearts left behind by his runaway church-organist tattoo-addict dad. Given Jack's childish misunderstandings of events around him, it's none too surprising when he later learns how wrong he was about his parents and what passed between them. But Irving takes his time getting there. His sex-sotted bildungsroman ambles through five stages in Jack's life, from his formative, creepy early sexual experiences in a Toronto church school through his early drag-heavy stage roles and on to California, where professional transvestitism and unconventional, unsatisfying affairs continue to haunt him. Jack's scarring sexual and personal history make him bad with relationships, commitment, and self-analysis, but his talent and his gorgeous face make him an Academy Award-winning hit in Hollywood—mostly, it seems, so Irving (an Academy Award-winner himself) can drop a lot of famous names and discuss the difficulty of using a urinal while clutching an Oscar. Still, therapy and misery pin Jack down until he comes to terms with his family and his past.
Until I Find You makes some notable missteps: Irving's over-reliance on exclamation points, his proclivity for explaining the obvious, and his gratuitous and excessive use of italics for emphasis all point toward the presumption that his readers can't handle subtlety. Then again, subtlety isn't really Irving's strong suit; as with his previous books, his characters' broad, unconventional behavior is often fascinating, but he rarely reveals, except through flat explanation, what they're thinking or feeling. For all its probing into the depth of one life, Until I Find You is a relatively surface-level book. But it's a very rich surface. Much has been made of its autobiographical inspirations, but this robust, thoroughly entertaining five-ring circus of a novel reads as far bigger than any real life.