”I knew I was in for it back in April 1988, when I started Until I Find You,” says John Irving of his 820-page autobiographical new novel. ”I thought, ‘This is gonna knock your wind out.”’
He had no idea.
Until I Find You is an epic about Jack Burns, a Hollywood actor searching for his lost father. Burns is also ”the closest character to myself I’ve ever written,” insists Irving. Raised by his mother and stepfather in New England, and obsessed with negligent parents in novels like A Prayer for Owen Meany and A Widow for One Year, Irving, 63, never knew his own dad.
But he accidentally found him four years ago, while smack in the middle of writing his novel all about a son on the lookout for his father.
The story behind John Irving’s new novel sounds an awful lot like a John Irving novel. Like The World According to Garp, the unconventional 1978 breakout megaseller that set him for decades as the most popular of ”literary” authors, the real-lfe tale features heavy-duty revelation, unexpected tragedy, off-kilter comedy, and discomforting sex — very discomforting sex, as it happens. Just about the only John Irving staple it lacks, actually, is a transvestite.
Yet at least it ends happily, with Irving eager to discuss anything and everything about his life this afternoon. Sitting in his sunny home office overlooking Vermont’s Green Mountains, he looks slighter than expected, with gray stubble for a goatee and his jeans hitched a little high on his tucked-in polo. Famous for his athlete’s physique, and sporting a tattoo of a wrestling circle on his right forearm, the former wrestler lost 30 pounds during a tailspin while he was writing the book, and it shows.
”The missing-father stuff is certainly not new in my fiction,” he says, also citing The Cider House Rules, whose 1999 film version notched Irving a Best Adapted Screenplay Oscar. ”But not knowing my own father was more important to me internally, psychologically, than I have often in the past been willing to admit even to myself.” Now, having ”gone down that road all the way” with the ”lost childhood” theme and missing father figure of Until I Find You, ”I don’t feel obligated to go down it anymore.”
”I was born John Wallace Blunt Jr.,” says John Winslow Irving, whose name was changed when his mother, Frankie, remarried in 1948, when Irving was 6 and living in Exeter, N.H. She’d divorced John Blunt Sr. when Irving was 2. ”But no adult in my family would ever talk to me about who my biological father was,” Irving continues. ”No one ever demonized him, no one ever said he was a prick, but no one would discuss him. It was very New England. So as a kid, I imagined that he must’ve been horrible. Because why else wouldn’t he come looking for me? Why else would he so utterly disappear? When [my stepfather] Colin Irving adopted me and my name was changed to John Irving from John Blunt, I was kind of relieved to lose him, whoever this guy that no one would talk about was.”