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.'

" 'But-a you are always dressing as a woo- man -- or you seem to be theenking about eet, I mean-a dressing as a woo-man, even when-a you are dressed as a man .' "

When-a you have read more than two paragraphs of thees-a drivel, with or without the accompanying exclamation points, you want to hurl-a the book-a at a-wall -- but don't be too quick to e-Jack-ulate. There's more.

Four hundred pages more.

Jack follows his friend Emma to Hollywood, where he finds success playing transvestite roles. We are told that Jack is nominated for an Academy Award. We are told that "Jack was, albeit briefly, a Bond girl -- the one who was killed by a poisonous dart from a cigarette lighter when 007 deduced Jack was a guy."

In fact, we are always being told things that happen to Jack, while never being led to glimpse who Jack is or what Jack is feeling. The story reads as if Irving woke from a recurring nightmare and started dictating compulsively. He's too good a journeyman to have written anything this bad on purpose, and I kept asking myself, "What's he up to? How's he going to salvage this?"

Ultimately, Jack tracks down his father, who suffers from a severe depressive obsessive-compulsive disorder. And 10 pages from the end, in a bizarrely affectless exchange, Jack's father's Swiss psychiatrist recommends to Jack a jagged little pill:

"It's not unlike what we give your father, but it's newer and a little different from Zoloft or Seropram. . . . I think the brand name is Lexapro in the States. . . . You might not like the loss of libido, possible impotence, or prolonged ejaculation."

Nothing prepares us for this climactic device, and it's a cop-out, a last-ditch effort to justify this mass of lazy, unrefined writing. Jack asks the psychiatrist if she thinks he's depressed:

" 'What a question!' she said, laughing. 'If you're putting in chronological order everything that ever made you laugh, or made you cry, or made you feel angry -- and if you are truly leaving nothing out -- then of course you're depressed! . . .'

" 'But how will I know when I'm finished? It just goes on and on,' " he says to her.

I hope I'm wrong to read this as the cry for help that it appears to be. It does go on and on, and someone, somewhere in the production line at Garp Enterprises, Ltd., should have advised John Irving not to rush to print until he'd crafted pain into art, as he's done so masterfully before. ยท

Marianne Wiggins's latest novel, "Evidence of Things Unseen," was nominated for a Pulitzer Prize. Her new book, "The Shadow Catcher," will be published next year.

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