Books

THE TATTOOED HEART

John Irving’s novel reflects his missing father—and his own childhood sex abuse

Brian Bethune July 25 2005
Books

THE TATTOOED HEART

John Irving’s novel reflects his missing father—and his own childhood sex abuse

Brian Bethune July 25 2005

THE TATTOOED HEART

Books

John Irving’s novel reflects his missing father—and his own childhood sex abuse

BRIAN BETHUNE

SO, LET’S SEE: tattoo artists and church organists; wrestling and writing; an intricate, 40-year plot with Dickensian twists and Dickensian characters (including Mrs. Stackpole, who likes “the top position”); deadpan humour and child sexual abuse; absent fathers and very angry mothers; all of it clocking in at 800-plus pages. Yes, Until I Find You could only be a John Irving novel. But it’s far from being a typical Irving work, if such a thing is even conceivable. In his 11th novel, Irving, 63, tackles the themes that have always mattered to him with more verve, raw emotion and self-consciousness than ever before. The risk factor in Until I Find You is huge now that Irving has admitted—not just to critics and readers, but to himself—that the missing father is his own, and that the sexually abused little boy lost is John Irving.

The book opens in 1969 with four-yearold Jack Burns, future movie star, being carted through Baltic and North Sea ports by his mother, Alice, a Toronto tattoo artist. For a year they search for Jack’s father, William, a wandering church organist and “full ink”— a tattoo lover on his way to covering his entire body with images. All his life, Jack will have vivid memories of their strange quest: the comfort offered by the tattooists of northern Europe, his mother’s bravery, the trail of broken hearts left: in the wake of the womanizing William, the painful but evident fact that his father wanted nothing to do with him. William, always managing to keep a port ahead of Alice the avenging angel, finally escapes by taking ship for Australia.

Returning to Toronto, Alice—more than a little sour on men—enrols her son at an all-girl school. Jack’s horrific time at St. Hilda’s offers plenty of scope for Irving’s omniscient narrator, a one-man Greek chorus of sarcastic warning and bitter humour. “Oh, what a lucky boy Jack was! Safe among the girls, without a doubt,” the narrator intones more than once after yet another episode of bullying or (relatively) low-level sexual molestation. But despite the havoc

the older girls wreak, it’s not the worst to befall Jack. When he’s 10, a much older woman sexually violates him and destroys his childhood. Forever after, Jack feels he has some sort of mark, a sign that predatory older women alone can see.

Until I Find You was originally written in the first person—a disturbingly confessional exercise, Irving says as he sits at his writing

IRVING writes of a

childhood stolen not all at once but ‘in a series of small robberies, which add up to the same loss’

shack looking out over Georgian Bay. “I thought third person would be a kindness to me, giving me some distance from Jack, but also a kindness to the reader, losing much of Jack’s whiny tone.” But not even the switch in style could save him from all the pain his story dredged up. Irving’s own biological father, John Wallace Blunt, left when he was a baby, and it was almost 40 years before the author learned his mother had kept Blunt away from his child. “My mother never demonized my father,” Irving says. “But, boy, did I demonize him: how awful a man did he have to be if no one in my family would speak of him at all, if he didn’t want to see me?” When a half-brother made contact in 2001, Irving was saddened to learn that Blunt had died five years earlier,

but stunned to discover that his father had been hospitalized late in life with bipolar disorder: Irving had already put Jack Burns’s father into a mental institution.

More devastating for Irving, however, were the emotions evoked by writing about Jack’s sexual abuse. “Jack and the older women brought back repressed memories of the time when I was both ashamed and attracted to older women.” And Jack’s classic responses, particularly the belief that the abuser cared for him and the conviction that his vulnerability was written all over him, were also Irving’s. “My sexual experience was at 11,” recalls Irving, who couldn’t bear to give Jack the same age for his traumatic encounter, “with a woman not as old as Jack’s seducer, rather a woman in her 20s who, I’m sure to this day, never thought she did something wrong. Nor did it feel wrong to me then—only in my 20s was I ashamed that I still had urges for older women, and I felt it as a wrong in me.” And that mark of Cain? “I remember it, I remember it—as visible on my forehead as a birthmark. Once in my 20s I remember, I was in a room, drawn to the most unsuitable woman there for my age, knowing I’d never approach her, knowing I’d be helpless if she approached me.”

Jack’s early life left him far more passive than Irving, though,

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Almost 700 pages

into the novel, grown-up Jack’s psychiatrist states baldly what readers already know: that her patient is a cipher. Irving anticipates some “stupid criticism” about writerly failure to create a full-bodied character, but he argues vigorously that Jack’s unknowability is one of the achievements of his novel. “He’s a passive womanizer, a passive character—he never initiates, though he almost never says no—and you don’t know him because he never initiates.” And that is precisely the state of a man whose childhood has been stolen—“not always in one momentous event but often in a series of small robberies, which add up to the same

loss,” in the novel’s most memorable lines.

Jack’s non-presence is balanced for much of the book by the incandescent Emma, the lifelong friend who starts out as a menacing Grade 6 presence in his kindergarten world. Eight years older, strong and fiery-tempered, Emma moves quickly once she learns what happened to him. Arriving with Jack at the gym where the boy still met his abuser, Emma learns “three illegal wrestling moves in under 10 seconds,” and destroys the woman. “I’ve created an Emma character over and over again in my novels,” says Irving with a rueful smile, “probably because of how much I wished I had an Emma in my life to protect and hold me.”

But plot and, in the case of Until I Find You, theme, drive Irving novels far more than character does. Most of the buzz about the novel will focus on Irving’s discovery of his other family. But the family romance may well obscure what a fine meditation on memory the novel is. “It’s a book about creating the memories we want” Irving agrees. “Our memory can betray us, especially if we have an imagination—we make false memories if those are the memories we wish to be true.” After Jack learns that his mother was less than truthful to him about his father—just as Irving’s own mother was—Jack retraces his childhood trip to Europe and finds that almost everything he remembered was manipulated, virtually implanted in his head.

So what of his own angry mother, the one who hid from her son the fact his father did want to see him? Irving answers carefully. “This is an awfully intimate book. My mom isn’t well enough to read it, but she will read about the autobiographical elements in the media and she will be hurt. But I can’t help that. These are not my secrets any more— and the missing father was never my secret.”

There is a lot going on in Until I Find You, both artistically and emotionally. The twin European tours, with their rearranged jigsaw puzzles of memory, are a marvel of craftsmanship, but the long middle section drags. It’s audacious, to say the least, to expect a character with a hole in his heart to carry so hefty a novel. But so cathartic a book could easily have escaped Irving’s control, and it never really does, a tribute to his artistry and his courage. IU