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The novel is the story of young Jack Burns, his mother, father, and the many other people close to him in his life from infancy to adulthood. Jack's life begins in 1965, and moves into the present. He is the son of Alice, a tattoo artist, and William, an organist with music tattooed on nearly every square inch of his skin. William and Alice separate while Jack is very small, and the novel begins with Jack and his mother travelling from Canada to Europe in search of his father.
In 1969 "...his mother was full of surprises...Alice...would work her way through Northern Europe in search of Jack's runaway Dad...they would hunt him down and confront him with his abandoned responsibilities." William Burns' "abandoned responsibilities" become an important theme in the book.
After the epic journey to Holland, Denmark, Norway, and Finland (and I may have left out a country or two) Jack and his mother return to Toronto, very much without his father, and he begins to attend St. Hilda's school. St. Hilda's is a girl's school which, just that year, has begun to admit little boys. Thus begins Jack's many encounters with older girls and women. Some, such as Caroline Wurtz and Emma Oastler, become lifelong friends. And others, pointedly one Mrs. Machado, victimize this too-young good-looking boy, taking advantage of his precocious sexuality long before he can even begin to understand what's happening.
There is a lot of sex in this book, but it is not a sexy book.
If anything, it is a melancholy book, a meditation on so many of life's cruel tricks -- not the least of which is the elusive nature of happiness itself, even when one has everything for which one could ever hope.
Yes, there is wrestling. Jack (and his friend Emma, for that matter) becomes a wrestler, a lightweight. For the rest of his life (the part that is revealed to us, anyway) he eats little, always conscious of his weight.
I don't recall any bears. But certainly there is some Vienna? Well, there's Switzerland, anyway.
And tattoos. The world of tattoos, tattoo artists, people who are addicted to getting tattoos. If you don't know what "flash" is (I didn't), you'll figure it out from the context. You'll find out what a "scratcher" is.
Jack's career as a movie actor is fascinating, and ironically appropriate. Jack's mother predicted that he would be an actor, and he is. As a fictional American film star, he is cleverly interwoven with some very real people, personalities, and events. It is believable and unbelievable at the same time.
One of the many reasons that I will not be a great writer of fiction is that I lack subtlety. John Irving does not. As in a great drawing, the empty space is as important as the lines and shapes. The nuance, the pause between words, the choice of one word rather than another -- all this is the mark of a master. Irving makes his character an actor for many reasons best known to him, but it doesn't matter -- he is an actor, I believe it, and the story is best told this way.
I have been looking around for a passage to quote to somehow capture what I am claiming. Maybe this does it:
"Every young actor imagines there is a special part -- a groove in which he or she is a perfect fit. Well--Jack's advice to young actors would be: Hope you never get the perfect part..."
The entire fifth part of the book is entitled "Dr. Garcia," Jack Burns's psychiatrist in this last part of the story. Jack has, no great surprise, been deeply scarred (tattooed?) by his young life. His mother's singular personality, his father's absence, sexual abuse from the older women, loss and grief have all loosened him from the anchor which is sanity. In this last part, Jack strives to really find out who his father is, and was, and what really happened to him in 1969, at the age of four.
The true nature of Jack's mother and father are, of course, surprises that must not be revealed until you read this very well written work.
Don't rest until you find Until I Find You.