LAST NIGHT IN TWISTED RIVER by John Irving

Book Quote:

“In any work of fiction, weren’t those things that had really happened to the writer–or, perhaps to someone the writer had intimately known–more authentic more verifiable true, than anything that anyone could imagine? (This was a common belief, even though a fiction writer’s job was imagining, truly, a whole story–as Danny had subversively said, whenever he was given the opportunity to defend fiction in fiction writing–because real-life stories were never whole, never complete in the ways that novels could be.)”

Book Review:

Review by Doug Bruns (OCT 26, 2009)

I had dinner recently with a friend who asked me what I was reading. “The new John Irving book,” I told her. She became instantly animated. “I love John Irving,” she declared. “I’ve read everything he’s written, and watched the movies too.” I was almost finished with the newest Irving book, Last Night in Twisted River, and was exhausted at what I found to be its inherent ups and downs. I needed her enthusiasm. “Tell me why you like him so much,” I asked. “Well,” she began, “his characters are always so interesting. And the stories, they’re usually tragic but still somehow funny. I love how he can do that.” I understood both these comments–and agreed. “He’s just different than all other writers.” I understood that too–I think.

Last Night at Twisted River is a story about Great North Woods lumbermen, three men specifically. There is Daniel Baciagalupo, who is twelve when the novel opens; his father, Dominic, known at the lumber camp, where he cooks meals of high repute, as “Cookie.” And there is Ketchum, best-friend of Cookie, woodsman extraordinaire, a man among men. The book opens in Coos County, New Hampshire in 1954 and ends in 2005, Pointe Au Baril Station, Ontario. The arc of narration, the event that ties down this fifty-one year span is the frigid clumsy death of Angel Pope, a too-young lumberman, who slips into the Twisted River during a log drive and never surfaces. “The young Canadian, who could not have been more than fifteen, had hesitated too long.”–is the wonderful opening sentence to this long tale of bitter winters, even more bitter women, murder and violence. And of course, this being a John Irving novel, bears.

You might have noticed above that I used a semicolon. You don’t see semicolons much any more. I mentioned this because semicolons are discussed in the novel, as are other fine points of writerly interest. (“The semicolons came from those old-fashioned nineteenth-century novels that had made Daniel Baciagalupo want to be a writer in the first place.”) Though Last Night in Twisted River is the story of lumber drives, revenge and manly pursuits, it is also a novel about writing, about books and learning to read and write. It is a novel within a novel, as the young Danny matures and discovers his calling as a writer, including proper use of the semi-colon. Grown up and successful after nine novels–some books sharing remarkable similarity to Irving novels–Danny turns to his childhood in the woods for material. I found this part of the book the most interesting. It was like sitting with Irving and listening to him talk about his craft, about foreshadowing, and tension, about narration and timing. This section also shines a light from within on the balance of the book, as we learn from Danny that the protagonist of his novel will share a resemblance to his family friend Ketchem and that only late in the book will his Ketchem be brought to full life. “It is good to make the reader wait,” says Danny. And it is in our book, late, when Ketchem is given full exercise, that the narration sings. For instance,

“Even with a stick shift, Ketchum managed to drive right-handed. He stuck his left elbow out the driver’s-side window, with the fingers of his left hand making only coincidental contact with the steering wheel; Ketchum clenched the wheel tightly in his right hand. When he needed to shift gears, his right hand sought the navel-high knob on the the long, bent stick shift–in the area of Carmella’s knees. Ketchum’s left hand tentatively took hold of the steering wheel, but for no longer than the second or two that his right was on the gearshift.”

I can feel the breeze in my hair reading this. Unfortunately, writing like this, precise and sharp, is sadly missing in most of the book. Sentences are too often repetitive–”the war…would drag on and on.” and “he sat, listening and listening.” And they are clunky, as in, “Yet, as Danny would one day consider, maybe this was a writer’s peculiar burden–namely, that the anxiety he felt as a father was conflated with the analysis he brought to bear on the characters in his fiction.” Prose is the stream of narration and without it, to use a metaphor from the book, there will be a log jam. Once the log jam is broken up, the flow returns. So it is in this book.

Irving’s books, some say, have grown darker and more disturbing through the years. I have not read all of his work, I confess, so I cannot attest to this first hand. But of the books I have read, I can tell you that this book is perhaps the darkest and offers the least relief. Irving has explored the caprices of fate before, it is a constant Irving theme. And it is here too, in the fashion of an accidental murder early on in the book. As a consequence of the murder, Cookie and his son Danny set out from camp and cannot return–ever. They must live on the run. Sadly, this theme is a log jam. We are to believe that men late in life, in their seventies and eighties, are still set on revenge; that an accident cannot be explained; that violence is a given. Regardless, we follow Cookie and Danny to Boston’s North End (where Danny goes to prep school, as Irving went to Exeter), then Iowa City (where, like Irving, Danny studies at the writer’s workshops), then back east to Vermont and finally settling in Toronto (Irving home cities).

Fate, “the fragile, unpredictable nature of things” and “a world of accidents”–these are the worlds explored in this novel. Accidents abound: Young Danny’s mother falls through the ice and drowns in the river–the same spot where Angel, the young lumberman, will years later drown. A woman is mistook for a bear and killed with a skillet. A dog attacks a runner and sets into motion a world of events that lead, one to the other, to a surprise encounter and ultimately a double murder. It is dark stuff here, indeed. And unlike previous Irving works, there is little humor. There is a comment made of a woman in the novel, “Nothing but happiness would explain why she was so boring.” From that we can infer that unhappiness is interesting. Granted, there is a lot of unhappiness in this book. Unfortunately, it could be more interesting. There is slight traction to the unhappy themes explored here. And where there is happiness that is not extinguished, specifically at the book’s end, it is,yes, boring.

It was this unevenness, the unhappiness fronting for the interesting, that troubled me. It was overwrought and hard earned–too hard earned, so as to not be reliably honest to the book. I got a sense that Irving was exhausting old notebooks and filling chapters with previously unused material. I want to be fair, this is a big book and just to sustain a narration for 553 pages is a supreme accomplishment. To do it without blemish is an act of genius. I believe in Irving’s genius, but it is not apparent here. This is an accomplishment, but not a work of high order. It is, at times, a very well told tale, but it is not lasting.

With the well-drawn similarities between Danny and John Irving I find it sadly interesting that Danny is advised and later repeats this observation: “…writers should know it’s sometimes hard work to die…”

AMAZON READER RATING: stars-4-0from 25 readers
PUBLISHER: Random House (October 27, 2009)
REVIEWER: Doug Bruns
AMAZON PAGE: Last Night in Twisted River
AUTHOR WEBSITE: John Irving
EXTRAS: Excerpt
MORE ON MOSTLYFICTION: Read a review of

Another book that involves an accidental murder:

A more on fiction that discusses the art of writing:

Bibliography:

Non-Fiction

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October 26, 2009 · Judi Clark · One Comment
Tags: , , , ,  · Posted in: Canada, Contemporary, Literary, NE & New York, y Award Winning Author

One Response

  1. poornima - October 28, 2009

    This is really well done, Doug. You really bring out your reservations about the book while recognizing its place in the author’s oeuvre.

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