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Oddities and ends

Irving unveils another gallery of grotesques

Until I Find You
By John Irving
Random House, 824 pp., $27.95

The novelist with a character in mind selects a means of motivating that character through a plot of some sort; the machinery of the character-driven novel consists of the unfolding of an essential nature by way of its encounters with an exigent plot.

John Irving is a writer of character-driven novels, and ''Until I Find You" conforms to the general patterns established in his earlier works. An Irving novel arranges together something of a museum of human defectives: Sexual oddities, limpers, stutterers, neurotics, the bruised, the wounded, the damned, all of these lurch from within the diorama that comprises his tales. Through the succession of these viewing galleries, his main character -- usually a boy-man raised by a single parent --undertakes a tourist's quest, most often a search for the missing parent.

Given the length of his career as a narrative artist, and the persistence of these bizarre galleries, it is time to ask: What is this menagerie of the unfit doing there?

It is unlikely they are intended to engender sympathy. It is unlikely, too, that he intends to create ideational space for the nervy freshness of his main character. Each misfortunate is presented with a deeply casual matter-of-factness. Irving takes no more notice of an amputated limb than a stray pimple. A shattered life impels no more wobble in his plot's dense tread than a crumbled cookie strewn across a graying plate, so the reader is deprived of a useful collision with a sensibility truly at odds with one's own.

Alternately, this gallery of the bizarre may be intended to work on the character, to effect his evolutionary emergence. Presumably, he will learn good things about the human condition, have suppositions upset, or find his implicit understanding of the world explicitly renounced. No such luck: The characters exiting an Irving novel are essentially the same as those who entered, and though they have seen multitudes -- in the case of ''Until I Find You," exasperatingly many multitudes -- they have come to understand very little about those others as a result.

In ''Until I Find You," Jack Burns is the fatherless son of Alice, who early in the novel undertakes a quest -- her son in tow -- to discover the whereabouts of William, Jack's father. The pair are Canadian, though Alice hails originally from Scotland. While in Europe, she evidently had had a brief but precocious affair with William, a noted music instructor and organist, who abruptly fled for other European cities and, presumably, other conquests. As Jack understands it, William was a womanizer who had few inhibitions about the legal age of his partners, was a mesmerizing artist on the pipe organ, and was obsessed by tattoos: In part, his travels through Europe are driven by a need to visit this or that tattoo artist or parlor. Jack and Alice trail him for hundreds of pages, dropping in on cities in Norway, Sweden, and Finland just as it seems William has fled them.

Irving laboriously conducts the reader through a summer-long itinerary, during which many of his human absurdities are displayed. Restored to Canada, Jack enters primary school, advances to high school, and moves on to college. All the while, he has been developing the habit of sleeping with most women he encounters, while failing to commit to any of them -- the family legacy, or a timidity inspired by his father's failure to accept the responsibilities of a family?

The parade of the wounded and the harmed is endless, and unforgivably routine. At one stage, Jack sleeps with his college roommate's sister, a talented woman who is forced not only to drop out of Andover but to suffer an abortion, which (we later learn) ruins her life. No matter: For Jack, the bummer of it all was he lost his good friend from college. One senses Irving's attempt to achieve comic effect with such human oddities, and to some extent he succeeds. Yet there is nothing interestingly funny -- much less comically smart -- about any of it. The literary effect is one of extraordinary aesthetic banality.

After Jack graduates from college, he goes to Hollywood and becomes a famous actor. His best friend from childhood, Emma, pairs up with him in California to become, not only a famous novelist, but also an Academy Award-winning screenwriter -- presumably the common outcome of any creative young person's pilgrimage to Los Angeles. (These sections give Irving the chance to leaven the novel with the narratively fattening materials of celebrity, name-dropping, restaurant hopping, and a sense of ''how things work on the inside" -- insights no doubt drawn from his experience as screenwriter of the movie ''The Cider House Rules.")

As Jack discovers through therapy, the entire story of his father may have been a fraud perpetrated by Alice. In this way, the reader is invited to undertake a second, identical, but this time independent pilgrimage through those same cities from which the reader had escaped hundreds of pages back. In an effort intended to rehabilitate William both for the reader and Jack, the same succession of eccentrics and oddities is dragged across these pages.

Jack ultimately reunites with his not-so-bad father, agrees to provide him a lifetime of care, and reconciles all the bitterness he has cultivated in the more than 800 pages of his story. The reader will not be as fortunate.

Credible complexity in a character can be achieved in at least two ways: Either distinctiveness is a matter of the sometimes gaudy and eye-catching methods of personality -- stark red hair, deep sag to the breast, the tortured lisp of the poorly born -- or it can be a presentation of the sometimes invisible but momentously significant suasions that inhabit us all -- the ''not-thought" in thought, the unseen in the visible, the places into which the imagination must reach.

If the novelist cannot, or is not inclined to, perform the second with his words, he may take recourse in the first -- and surely from a writer such as Irving, and from novels in general, the reader has properly come to expect more.

Kurt Jensen's reviews appear in several publications nationally.

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