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Who's Your Daddy?

In his new novel, John Irving wrestles personal demons


Published July 27, 2005 at 6:11 p.m.

To get to the inner sanctum of John Irving's huge mountaintop home in Dorset, a visitor must walk past a long row of shelves of the author's books, seemingly printed in as many languages as there are countries. At the end of the hall is the heart of the home, a long, cozy room that stretches toward the horizon like the prow of a ship. And at its center sits Irving, the 63-year-old author best known for his much-loved 1978 novel The World According to Garp, as well as his near fanatical passion for wrestling.

Irving, who was born in Exeter, New Hampshire, and his second wife have lived in the 6000-square-foot home for the past 14 years, during which time he has been a regular on the best-seller lists and picked up a screenwriting Academy Award. "You know when it's really great up here?" he says as I enter the room he calls an office, swiveling in his chair toward the panorama. "The winter. It's just all white treetops."

Our meeting is in late June, though, so the hills are shrouded in haze. And at nine o'clock in the morning, Irving is dressed for hot weather -- shorts and an athletic T-shirt. No AC for him. There is a masculine frisson to the air about him, as if he had just completed the literary equivalent of a hundred one-armed push-ups. In a sense, he has: The reason for our interview is the book he has just released, the 848-page tome Until I Find You.

Physically, however, Irving is under doctor's orders to steer clear of the weight room; he suffered a hernia after challenging the youngest of his three sons, Everett, to a quarter-mile foot race. "Let's just say I won't be doing that again," he says with a shake of his leonine head.

Irving admits he should know better. The days when he could take down men half his age on the wrestling mat are behind him. Nor does he need to drop full nelsons on America's literary heavyweights; the magnitude of his success as a storyteller would make grappling with one-time rivals Tom Wolfe and John Updike almost unseemly, like beating up on old folks.

Indeed, as if we needed any reminder, the walls around him are proof positive: In the battle among America's literary crossover artists, Irving has won, and by a knockout. Just inside the doorway on a bookshelf is the Oscar he won in 2000 for his adaptation of his 1985 novel The Cider House Rules; on the wall behind his desk are three framed best-seller lists, all with John Irving at number one. Two of them are from the past decade.

Irving reckons he would have had a fourth number one in 1989 for his Vietnam War-influenced A Prayer for Owen Meany, were it not for the fatwa-boosted sales of Salman Rushdie's Satanic Verses that year. "I called Salman briefly after he went into hiding back then," says Irving, boasting only a little. "I told him congratulations, since we were one-two on best-seller lists all over the world. Rushdie laughed and came right back at me. 'You want to switch places?'"

Sixteen years later, Rushdie is back in the public eye; Irving has never left it. And the latest reason for limelight is his controversial 11th novel. Until I Find You has a backstory so long and tortured it nearly eclipses the actual book. Like Garp and Meany, the new novel spins a picaresque yarn about a fatherless boy's journey into the world. This, of course, is Irving's core story: He was born out of wedlock and his mother, from a distinguished New England family, refused to reveal his father's identity.

Until I Find You starts with a long and entertaining sojourn through northern Europe, where the central character, Jack Burns -- who is 4 as the action begins -- and his mother are searching for his wayward father, an organ player who is gradually tattooing Bach sonatas across his body.

The man proves elusive, and Jack and his mother return home and settle in Toronto -- a city that has been Irving's second home over the years. Jack is enrolled in an otherwise all-girl school (a typical Irving touch), and his mother sets up shop as a tattoo artist. An unusual childhood, adolescence and young adulthood unfold, replete with sexual escapades.

Then, suddenly, Jack is in living in Los Angeles, a successful actor and international sex symbol who has everything but the one thing he truly wants: a dad. And so his real quest begins.

Although the novel reprises themes Irving has touched on before -- the ache of growing up without a father, the sadness and hilarity of sex -- he says they struck closest to the bone in this book. For once, the author is willing to dig into these themes in person.

"The principal event of my childhood was that no adult in my family would tell me who my father was," he says, his handsome face turning suddenly fragile. "I was born John Wallace Blunt, Jr., and my name was changed when my mum remarried my stepfather, Colin Irving, in 1948. I was 6. I loved this guy, I loved my stepfather. I named my first son Colin after him. And my life just got so much better when he came into it that I thought it would be a betrayal of him if I had gone looking for my real father. I felt this way even in my twenties and thirties."

Instead of obsessing over this issue in life, Irving exorcised it on the page, plowing into the literary world with the head-down thrust of a man who is a little bit on the short side but determined to succeed anyway.

After graduating from Exeter Academy, the elite New Hampshire preparatory school where his mother and stepfather were teachers, Irving briefly went to college in Pittsburgh, where his love of wrestling was overtaken by a desire to write. After his freshman year, he traveled to Vienna to study. There he met and married painter Shyla Leary, who was studying art. Their first son, Colin, was born in Austria.

In 1970 the couple had a second son, Brendan, but the marriage broke up painfully in 1981. Six years later, Irving married Canadian literary agent Janet Turnbull, who now represents his work. Their only child, Everett, is 13.

Irving seems exceptionally proud of being a father, or perhaps he's just fond of photographs. His home is plastered with dozens of shots of Colin and Brendan, often in wrestling gear, which is not surprising since Irving coached them in the sport as teenagers. Both are good-looking and beetle-browed like their dad. There are dozens more pictures in the full-sized wrestling arena Irving had built onto one side of the house.

Irving seems relieved that Everett did not fall for wrestling, but this is a marked shift from his previous involvement in the sport. He used to drive up from New York to New Hampshire, where his older boys were in school, to give them personal instruction. When The World According to Garp was released as a movie, Irving appeared in one scene as a wrestling official. Now, hernia aside, he appears to be slowly giving up the idea that he is one of the boys. "I don't need to try and keep up with the young kids anymore," he says.

Although he has avoided the subject in the past, Irving has finally come to admit that he had a sort of prolonged adolescence. And he also knows why. Like Jack Burns, Irving had his first experience with sex at an improbably young age.

"She was a young woman, in her early twenties, when I was 11," he says, swerving abruptly back into the past, "but she was someone that was sort of known and trusted by all the adults around me."

Irving is hesitant to call the experience molestation, but he admits that it was far too early for Mrs. Robinson-like thrills. "I was of such an age that I wasn't even aware we were having sex, until later, when I was old enough to have it on my own initiation [and] I thought, 'Shit, this isn't the first time.'"

Although previous Irving novels, such as The Hotel New Hampshire, have depicted sex between an older woman and a younger man with a wink and a nod and a backwash of sadness, in this one it seems terribly empty. The sex Jack has comes out as strange, a little weird, and deeply sad.

It also sets up the novel's central theme -- innocence not lost, but taken. This rises like a recrimination from the omniscient narrator in one scene, in which a friend's mother reveals herself to Jack:

In this way, in increments both measurable and not, our childhood is stolen from us -- not always in one momentous event but often in a series of small robberies, which add up to the same loss. For surely Mrs. Oastler was one of the thieves of Jack's childhood -- not that she necessarily meant to hurt him, or that she gave him the matter any thought one way or another. Leslie Oastler was simply someone who disliked innocence, or she held innocence in contempt for reasons that weren't even clear to her.

According to Irving, time has allowed him to escape the older-woman complex that grew out of his early introduction to sex. But it took a few accidents to force him to come to grips with his father fixation. The first came in 1981, the year he published The Hotel New Hampshire.

"It wasn't until I was 39 and divorcing my first wife that my mother deposited a package of letters on my dining room table," he says. "They were all written to her from my father from an air base in India, and from hospitals in China in 1943."

And so Irving discovered that his father was a pilot during World War II who had been shot down and held as a prisoner-of-war in Burma and China. The letters did not depict a deadbeat, but a man who had become a father too young.

The second epiphany came 20 years later, in the form of an even greater shock. In 2001, after appearing in a television documentary, Irving got a call from a man named Christopher Blunt, who had seen the program. "He said, 'I think I am your brother,'" Irving recalls. After a few hours of conversation, the two men discovered they were half-brothers; Irving also learned from Blunt that their father had been dead for five years.

It was a crushing blow, after so many years of pining. Blunt filled Irving in on the man their father had become: the manager of a well-to-do investment firm who married three times, and who suffered from bipolar disease.

"I began to think a lot about what I inherited from him," Irving says. He had started writing Until I Find You by this point, and in a strange twist had already given Jack Burns' father a mental disorder similar to that he now knew had afflicted his father. Irving went into a tailspin, experiencing his first real bout with depression. He was prescribed antidepressants, but gave them up when it became difficult to write under their influence.

Irving eventually completed the novel in 2004. But that was not the end of the saga. Irving had written the book in the first person, but at the last moment, he pulled it back from his publisher and rewrote it from scratch in the third person. That took another nine months, but Irving is adamant that he didn't do it just to put some distance between himself and Jack Burns. It was to get more control of the story.

"It's the same reason why I didn't write this as a memoir," he says, his voice almost rising. "I've only written one memoir (The Imaginary Girlfriend, in 1997, about the writers and wrestlers who have influenced him), and it's very small. You just have so much more control over a story when it's portrayed from the third person."

The quest for control is one of the reasons why, in spite of his worldwide success, Irving has had such an adversarial relationship with journalists. A pre-condition of this interview was that I had to have read Until I Find You in its entirety. If it became clear I had not, I was warned, Irving would terminate the discussion.

He may be able to control his narrator and whom he lets into his home, but Irving has never been able to control his critics. And they came out swinging at this new novel. The weekend before its release in mid-July it was panned by many American newspapers, including many of the ones that count.

Writing in the Washington Post, novelist Marianne Wiggins expressed bafflement: "He's too good a journeyman to have written anything this bad on purpose." On publication day, legendary slash-and-burn critic Michiko Kakutani delivered her verdict in The New York Times: "Jack's 'melancholic logorrhea' might yield some useful therapeutic results, but in terms of storytelling, it makes for a tedious, self-indulgent and cruelly eye-glazing read." The Sunday Times was a bit more positive, but by that point the damage was done.

Irving has gotten used to this drubbing over the years, but, as usual, he finds much to quibble with in the reviews of Until I Find You. And not just, as he explains to me later by email, because Wiggins had a conflict of interest. ("A significant ex in her life is an old friend of mine," he writes.) No, he suggests the reviewers' inability to appreciate his novels -- especially this one -- has something to do with reviewing itself.

"This is a long novel, and the theme of Jack's abuse as a child, which renders him a childish, acquiescent adult, makes the sexual explicitness germane," says Irving. "Both the content of this novel, which is not for the prudish, and its purposeful length -- a solid 60 percent or more of book reviewers dislike long, plotted novels -- make Until I Find You an easy target for lazy, impatient readers.

"My readers are neither lazy nor impatient," Irving continues. "Readers who relish long, plotted novels like me, and readers who have liked my other long novels will like this one."

It is possible that the best review Irving will receive for Until I Find You will come from his old friend and one-time mentor, Kurt Vonnegut. The iconoclastic American writer taught Irving how to craft and tell stories three decades ago at the legendary Iowa Writers' Workshop. On the day of our meeting at his house, with those negative reviews yet unpublished, Irving tosses me a postcard he has received from Vonnegut. On the front is the slogan, "Life is No Way to Treat an Animal." On the back is a carefully scrawled message: "What a perfectly tremendous piece of work, and so humane. You deserve to be richly rewarded. Proud to know you, Kurt Vonnegut. May 30, 2005."

And that's one certainty about the world according to John Irving: Despite what the critics say, Vonnegut's command -- that he be rewarded -- always comes true.

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