The World According to Jack

Reviewed by Marianne Wiggins
Sunday, July 10, 2005


By John Irving

Random House. 824 pp. $27.95

U ntil I Find You , the new John Irving novel, goes for over 800 pages and leaves one with an even greater appreciation for the Viagra label's warning of penile erectile states that might last up to four or five hours. Make it stop!

Irving's latest tale purports to be about Jack Burns, bastard son of a female tattoo artist and an itinerant organist, whose life we follow from the time he is introduced at age 4 until, 800 pages later, he is in his thirties; but really it's about Jack's penis, which, as a leading character in a novel of this length, has a paralyzingly narrow narrative scope, limited dialogue and no linguistically interesting stream-of-consciousness whatsoever.

The narration doesn't exactly emanate from this part of Jack's anatomy, but every plot point hinges on it, even when he is still a child. Early in the story, after he and his mother, Alice, have spent pointless months dragging through every Scandinavian country on the map, dogging his absent father, Jack is befriended by an older girl who fondles the prepubescent boy with the impatience of a person fingering her watch at a bus stop. Two hundred pages into the tale, Jack, at the raw age of 9, experiences what Irving calls his first "near-death ejaculation," brought about by some older students at an all-girls school in Toronto. Soon thereafter, like the author, he goes to Exeter Academy and, subsequently, the University of New Hampshire. "Jack Burns would miss those girls, those so-called older women. Even the ones who had molested him. (Sometimes especially the ones who had molested him!). . . . After the sea of girls, what pushovers boys were! After Jack's older-women experiences, how easy it would be to deal with men !"

Three exclamation points! Count 'em, folks! That's classy writing!

Another two hundred pages later, Jack is finding out just what lasting effects those girls have had on him when he's asked by an English-mangling character whom Irving inserts for comic effect, " 'Are you a person who-wa, though not a homosexual, psychologically identifies weeth the opposite sex-sa? I mean-a weeth wee-men.'

" 'Am I a transvestite, do you mean?'

" ' Yes! '

" 'No.'

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