Life according to John Irving

In his 11th novel, “Until I Find You, “the author excavates his own past, unearthing painful secrets and finding his father

By Dinitia Smith
New York Times News Service

DORSET, Vt. — “I have not written a novel that disturbed me so much, “John Irving said. He was in the study of his 6,000-square-foot cedar-shingled house atop Mt. Aeolus near here, a small, muscular man in a tank top and gym shorts. On his right arm was a tattoo, the starting circle on a wrestling mat; on his left shoulder a maple leaf for his wife, Janet Turnbull, a Canadian.

“Until I Find You “(Random House, July) is his Big Book, an attempt to resolve the great themes of his life and work. Irving’s archetypal hero is Garp, whose mother dominates his existence, having conceived him on top of a comatose airman, and his novels are fill of male characters with strong mothers and absent fathers. Born John Wallace Blunt Jr., Irving never knew his father and took his stepfather’s name.

The new novel also has a deeper personal echo. It deals fictionally with a secret that Irving has carried around for years: In 1953, when he was 11, a woman sexually abused him.

To top it all off, while Irving, 63, was writing the novel, his biological father’s family suddenly turned up in his life.

“Until I Find You “is the story of Jack Burns, whose mother is a famous tattoo artist (Irving said he got his tattoos as research). Jack and his mother go in search of his absent father, a church organist who is an “ink addict, “with full-body tattoos.

A woman sexually violates Jack when he is 10–“I couldn’t bear to make him my age at the time, “Irving said–and a succession of other older women seduce him. Jack trains as an actor and imagines his father watching him, just as Irving as a boy imagined that his father might have seen him wrestling when he was captain of the team at Phillips Exeter Academy, the private school in Exeter, N.H.

Eventually, Jack becomes a movie star, playing mostly female roles. And at the novel’s end, he finally discovers his father’s identity.

Irving said the novel, which he began writing in the first person, dredged up long-buried emotions. He had confided his childhood sexual abuse only to family and close friends.

“I was very fond of this woman, “he said. “I felt she loved me. “As he grew older, he said he felt “unnatural “and had secret relationships with other older women.

“I thought everything I was ashamed of must be genetically connected to my father, “he said. “I assumed [that] because no adult ever discussed him, he must be bad.”

Irving always denied being curious about his father. But in fact, he said, “I wondered, why didn’t he insist on coming to find me.”

In 1981, when Irving divorced his first wife, Shyla, his mother gave him some letters from his father. In them, John Blunt Sr. asked for a divorce but also said he wanted to see his son. The letters described his adventures as a pilot shot down in 1943 over Burma and his escape hiking into China. When Irving read them, he said, “I wanted to go look for him.”

But he was afraid of hurting his stepfather, whom he loved. “I thought it would be a betrayal, “he said. He did, however, incorporate his father’s Burmese adventures into “The Cider House Rules.”

In 1998 Irving began “Until I Find You.”

In December 2001, Christopher Blunt, an executive vice president of a New York investment firm, received a phone call from a friend who saw Irving on television. In an interview, Irving said his real name was John Wallace Blunt Jr.; Christopher’s father was John Wallace Blunt.

Blunt remembered, “When I turned 23, he confided in me he had a child out of wedlock. “He found a photograph of Irving on the Internet. “The resemblance to my father was unbelievable, “he said. “I literally just fell off my chair.”

He wrote to Irving, who then telephoned him. They spoke for hours and later met.

Blunt, nearly 20 years younger than Irving, told him that their father had died five years before. “It was devastating, “Irving said. Their father had run an executive recruitment firm, Blunt said, and had been a good and beloved parent. He married three times after Irving’s mother, and had four more children. He even named one John Wallace Blunt Jr.

One of the Blunt siblings told Irving that their father might indeed have been at Exeter in 1961 when Irving was wrestling, and seen him, just as Irving had hoped.

One fact stunned Irving. As is his custom with his novels, he had written the end of “Until I Find You “before he wrote the beginning. At the end, Jack Burns discovers his father is insane and in a mental institution. Blunt told him that their father was severely bipolar and had been hospitalized.

Irving told his stepfather of his discovery. “My stepfather was happy for me, “Irving said. “Of course, it was clear to both of us my mother wouldn’t be interested in the Blunts.”

Meanwhile, the surfacing of these old ghosts while writing the novel sent Irving into a severe depression. He consulted his doctor. “I said `This novel is killing me,’ “he remembered. The doctor prescribed an antidepressant, but Irving said it made him feel detached and dulled his urge to write. He stopped taking it.

He handed in his manuscript. Then, after it was accepted, he retrieved it. “It was too confessional when it was in the first person, “he said. With the encouragement of a friend, reporter Mel Gussow of The New York Times, he rewrote it in the third person. That alleviated his pain, Irving said: “My spirits lifted. Jack Burns wasn’t me anymore.”

Recently, he sent the book to his stepfather. “He said it was one of my best, “Irving said. His mother, who is unwell, has not read it.

Is he angry with his mother for not telling him that his father wanted to see him?

“I must have been angry with my mother. But I wasn’t standing in her shoes in 1941, in a small town, with a baby where everyone knew that no one else came to see it.”

By not speaking about his father, his mother gave him a gift of the imagination. “It forced me to imagine him book after book.”

Now, said Irving, “I have written it out.”

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