July 25, 2005 12:00 PM

Here,” says John Irving, removing fading pictures from a folder, “are the first photographs of my father that I ever saw.” Though four years have passed since that initial glimpse, Irving, 63, is still visibly moved as he holds a 1943 photo of his father, an Air Force pilot, emaciated by malaria after being shot down over Burma. “He looks just like my son Colin,” Irving says. “It takes my breath away.” So does a 1942 photo of the handsome young officer lying on a suburban lawn, kissing a baby. At 6 months, the future author of The World According to Garp looks inquisitive, happy—totally unaware that the man is about to disappear from his life forever.

Only while writing Until I Find You, his new and most autobiographical novel to date, did Irving reconnect with his now dead father—and forge a bond with a family he never knew he had. “It’s been a very interesting seven years,” he says of the period he spent writing Until Like Irving’s 11 novels, the real-life story is animated by colorful characters and dark twists. When he began Until in 1998, for instance, Irving wrote a scene that placed an absent father in a mental institution. “I always begin with the end,” he says. Three years later Irving learned that his own father had been diagnosed with bipolar disorder five years prior to his death at 77 in 1996. But that’s getting ahead of the story, something Irving would never do….

Born John Wallace Blunt Jr., he was named for the man who would divorce his mother and sign away all visitation rights when John was 2 years old. Four years later John Jr.’s name was changed after his mother married Colin Irving, a teacher. “My life got better from the moment he came into it,” says Irving. In later years he often said that he so adored Colin that he never wondered about Blunt. But only the first half of that statement was true. Secretly, Irving hoped that his father was watching him. “I imagined him seeing me wrestle, reading my books, whatever,” he says.

After Irving divorced his first wife in 1981, his mother handed him letters that Blunt had sent her during World War II. “He explained why he didn’t want to stay married to her but hoped she would allow him to have some contact with me,” he says. Those words hit Irving hard: “Whatever differences brought about the end of my first marriage, there has never been a moment’s disagreement that we would both see our children equally.” He found it unthinkable that his mother had made such a request—and that his father had acquiesced.

Yet he still didn’t search for John Sr. “I would have hated it if he hadn’t cared,” he says. Instead, Irving baited his father to look for him, stitching details of his father’s war experiences into his novels. “It was my way of saying, ‘Hello, out there! Do you recognize this?’ But I never heard from him…. To this day I don’t know if he knew I was John Irving the writer.”

In December 2001 Irving was contacted by a man named Chris Blunt, who had heard that Irving, during a TV appearance, had mentioned a father with the same name as Chris’s dad. (“I typed ‘John Irving’ into Google,” says Chris, 43, an investment executive. “When the picture came up, I almost fell off my chair.”) After Chris sent family snapshots, Irving had no doubt. “I looked like these people!” he says. John Sr., he soon learned, was an executive recruiter who had married three more times, had four more children—and was an avid writer. “I was totally taken aback by that,” says Irving, who had always ascribed only his “horrible” traits to his absent father. Gradually, John Sr.’s children and grandchildren filled in more blanks. “They all loved this guy!” he says. “Seeing their regard for him, a cloud lifted.”

But reconnecting with his past wasn’t an unalloyed pleasure. Until, about a boy’s search for his missing father, includes the boy’s seduction by an older woman—another event lifted from Irving’s life. At the time of his own sexual molestation at age 11 by a woman in her 20s, Irving says, “I didn’t think of myself as abused.” After he met the Blunts, says his wife, Janet, “it became a full-fledged recovered memory and painful for him.”

Since finishing the book, Irving says, “I’ve been very, very happy.” At a recent dinner with Janet, their son Everett, 13, and eight Blunt relatives, “it felt like family,” Irving says. But there are still unanswered questions. Irving has yet to ask his mother, now 86, why she forbade his father to see him. “We just leave it respectfully alone,” he says.

Perhaps that’s because, as his fans know, he is a man who feels things happen for a reason. Does he see destiny’s hand in the late turn his life has taken? “Destinies I believe in, coincidences I don’t,” he replies. Does he see his father’s hand, too? “I don’t know if I’d make the leap to psychic connections,” he says. “Do I believe that some part of him might have wanted this to happen? Yes.”

Jill Smolowe. Natasha Stoynoff in Ontario

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