Book Review—Last Night in Twisted River, by John Irving

I’ve had trouble over the years reading anything by John Irving. Admittedly, I didn’t even try to tackle The World According To Garp, perhaps his most famous, and I simply couldn’t get past the first fifty pages of The Hotel New Hampshire. In my library is a copy of A Widow For One Year, a gift, which I’ve been apathetic about. Nonetheless, I recently completed his 2009 novel, Last Night in Twisted River. It was a case of willing my way through his twelfth novel (all 554 pages), to break the pattern of avoidance. The novel bounces around, in time and story, and it took awhile to connect with it, but it was ultimately an enjoyable read full of odd characters.

It is a story spanning fifty years with father, Dominic Baciagalupo, a cook, and son Daniel, destined to be a writer, as protagonists. Set in a New Hampshire logging camp in the 1950s, it opens with two tragedies, the drowning of the wife and mother to the two main characters, and another drowning of a boy named Angel, which leads to connections later on. You quickly learn of the dangers of logging in a “world of accidents” early in the book. A third death of “Injun Jane,” lover of the father, in rather unusual circumstances involving an 8 inch cast-iron frying pan, sends the cook-father and son on the run from Injun Jane’s  policeman husband. Their travels lead them to Boston (Italian restaurant) to Iowa City, Iowa (Chinese restaurant) and Toronto (French restaurant) with new characters and relationships, sexual and otherwise, as they age and move around, wondering when the New Hampshire cop will show up.

Threading through all this is a boisterous lumberjack friend named Ketchum, who keeps his distance, but is a rather constant giver of advice, which Dominic and Daniel tend to follow. There is a final confrontation with the cop, but in a “world of accidents,” which seems to be one of the underlying themes, it comes as no real surprise. There is also a humorous event involving a big naked female skydiver landing in a pigpen. She leaves the story, but you sense that she’s coming back. It was interesting that the slight of build Dominic and Daniel were attracted to large women throughout the book. I have no idea why that was an important element to the author, but it’s noticeable, which may have been the sole purpose of it.

Daniel (later Danny) the famous writer, commenting on writing, is author Irving throwing in his own thoughts on the subject. In the New York Times review, Joanna Scott writes:

But there’s more at work than just plot here. At the same time that we are reading about Dominic and Danny as they run from town to town (both of them change their names along the way), we are reading about how, and why, the story came to be written. The narrator tells us, for instance, that “all writers must know how to distance themselves, to detach themselves from this and that emotional moment, and Danny could do this — even at 12.” He tells us that one day “the writer would recognize the near simultaneity of connected but dissimilar momentous events — these are what move a story forward.” He explains that Danny’s novels involve “small, domestic tragedies,” in which “the villain — if there was one — was more often human nature than the United States.” After a section in which the fictional events are intertwined with the events of Sept. 11, Danny comes right out and explains, “I’m a fiction writer — meaning that I won’t ever write about the Sept. 11 attacks, though I may use those events, when they’re not so current, and then only in the context of a story of my own devising.”

I liked that—how a fiction writer looks, or needs to look, at reality—if he or she is going to write a good story.

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