LAST NIGHT IN TWISTED RIVER by John Irving
â€śIn any work of fiction, werenâ€™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 writerâ€™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.)”
Review by Doug Bruns (OCT 26, 2009)
I had dinner recently with a friend who asked me what I was reading. â€śThe new John Irving book,â€ť I told her. She became instantly animated. â€śI love John Irving,â€ť she declared. â€śIâ€™ve read everything heâ€™s written, and watched the movies too.â€ť 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. â€śTell me why you like him so much,â€ť I asked. â€śWell,â€ť she began, â€śhis characters are always so interesting. And the stories, theyâ€™re usually tragic but still somehow funny. I love how he can do that.â€ť I understood both these comments–and agreed. â€śHeâ€™s just different than all other writers.â€ť 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 â€śCookie.â€ť 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. â€śThe young Canadian, who could not have been more than fifteen, had hesitated too long.â€ť–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 donâ€™t see semicolons much any more. I mentioned this because semicolons are discussed in the novel, as are other fine points of writerly interest. (â€śThe semicolons came from those old-fashioned nineteenth-century novels that had made Daniel Baciagalupo want to be a writer in the first place.â€ť) 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. â€śIt is good to make the reader wait,â€ť 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 driverâ€™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 Carmellaâ€™s knees. Ketchumâ€™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–â€ťthe war…would drag on and on.â€ť and â€śhe sat, listening and listening.â€ť And they are clunky, as in, â€śYet, as Danny would one day consider, maybe this was a writerâ€™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.â€ť 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.
Irvingâ€™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 Bostonâ€™s North End (where Danny goes to prep school, as Irving went to Exeter), then Iowa City (where, like Irving, Danny studies at the writerâ€™s workshops), then back east to Vermont and finally settling in Toronto (Irving home cities).
Fate, â€śthe fragile, unpredictable nature of thingsâ€ť and â€śa world of accidentsâ€ť–these are the worlds explored in this novel. Accidents abound: Young Dannyâ€™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, â€śNothing but happiness would explain why she was so boring.â€ť 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 bookâ€™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 Irvingâ€™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: â€ś…writers should know itâ€™s sometimes hard work to dieâ€¦â€ť
|AMAZON READER RATING:||from 25 readers|
|PUBLISHER:||Random House (October 27, 2009)|
|AMAZON PAGE:||Last Night in Twisted River|
|AUTHOR WEBSITE:||John Irving|
|MORE ON MOSTLYFICTION:||Read a review of
Another book that involves an accidental murder:
A more on fiction that discusses the art of writing:
- Setting Free the Bears (1968)
- The Water Method Man (1972)
- The 158 Pound Marriage (1974)
- The World According to Garp (1978)
- The Hotel New Hampshire (1981)
- The Cider House Rules (1985)
- A Prayer for Owen Meany (1989)
- A Son of the Circus (1994)
- Trying to Save Piggy Sneed (1996)
- A Widow for One Year (1998)
- The Fourth Hand (July 2001)
- Until I Find You (July 2005)
- Last Night in Twisted River (October 2009)
- In One Person (May 2012)
E-Book Study Guide:
- Study Guide for THE WORLD ACCORDING TO GARP (July 2002)
- Study Guide for A PRAYER FOR OWEN MEANY (July 2002)
Movies from books:
- The World According to Garp (1982)
- Hotel New Hampshire (1984)
- Simon Birch (1998)
- Cider House Rules (1999)
- The Door in the Floor (based on a Widow for One Year (2004)