California Literary Review

Last Night in Twisted River by John Irving

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January 7th, 2010 at 10:59 am

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Last Night in Twisted River by John Irving
Last Night in Twisted River: A Novel
by John Irving
Random House, 576 pp.
CLR Rating: ★★★★½

Angels and Six-Packs

To a reader, an author is not the same person who farts out of bed every morning, spits out toothpaste all over the bathroom mirror and sits down at his or her desk to grind out a few pages before lunchtime.

Funnily enough, an author can also be a fiction, a shape we create from the clouds of words before us. Dickens might look like plum pudding (complete with brandy flambé); Steinbeck a trusty shoe with its sole flapping in the breeze; Dan Brown a car air freshener in the shape of a palm tree.

And John Irving? I see a worn hand, dried blood on the bruised knuckles, a palm all callused, soft as old leather.

It’s also the kind of hand I’d imagine that Irving’s character Ketchum might have, the kind of hand that reaches down into a river of swift moving logs to try and save a boy from drowning.

That’s how Last Night in Twisted River begins, in a logging settlement in Northern New Hampshire, in the cold slushy terror known to New Englanders as mud season. The lost boy is named Angel, and this name will prove to be very important in the years to come.

Not for Angel, of course. He’s dead by page one. Nor for Ketchum, who most blatantly could not ketch’im. No, it’s a name that will prove to be important for the son of Ketchum’s friend, the logging camp cook, Dominic.

For in a bizarre twist of fate, this is the last night that Dominic Baciagalupo (a bastardization of the Italian for “kiss of the wolf”) and his son Danny will spend in their home. Irving’s twist (which I won’t spoil) is a clever one, a gentle mocking of his ursine preoccupations, and it sends the two fleeing into peripatetic exile.

Their first port of call is the North End of Boston, then Vermont, then Iowa and eventually Toronto. Chased by a real threat of violence, they keep on making new lives for themselves: Dominic continuing to cook, Danny marrying and having his own boy Joe. Oh, and along the way, deciding to become a writer called Danny Angel.

Coincidence, you say?

One day, the writer would recognize the near simultaneity of connected but dissimilar momentous events – these are what move a story forward – but at the moment Danny lost consciousness in Carmella’s sweet-smelling arms, the exhausted boy had merely been thinking: How coincidental is this? (He was too young to know that, in any novel with a reasonable amount of forethought, there were no coincidences.)

No coincidences, and no missteps either. For Last Night in Twisted River is the work of a seasoned tale-teller, a writer who can blend his own life (a breakthrough novel on the fourth try, stints in Iowa under the tutelage of Kurt Vonnegut) with Danny’s and still manage to erase himself in the process.

It’s the old story within a story trick, the character we thought to be a third person passive now metamorphosing into a first person active. So by the time we reach the finish, a finish that Irving ties neatly back to the beginning, Danny has provided us with an intriguing meditation on the process of fiction writing.

Yet, notwithstanding the subterfuges, I have a funny feeling that this novel is less about writing and more about love. As evidence, it is dedicated to his son Everett, the same Everett who took the photo that graces the jacket cover. And it is Dominic and Danny’s relationship that forms the spine of the story.

Granted, Ketchum is far and away the most entertaining of the bunch:

No one but Danny had noticed the contact, though if Ketchum had been there – drunk or sober – Ketchum surely would have noticed. (But Ketchum, of course, was outside – presumably, still pissing.)

A fact that Irving is well aware of:

It was better to keep the Ketchum character hidden for a while – to make the reader wait to meet him. Sometimes, those most important characters need a little concealment.

But the bond between Danny and Dominic, and later, between Danny and Joe, are the ones that are tested. They must withstand the assaults from the world.

Which, in Irving’s vision, is a world full of death and violence. The shadow twins to father and son, this duo is all over Last Night in Twisted River. They are the law in the logging camp:

“Painkillers, both of them,” Ketchum remarked casually, as Danny closed the glove compartment. “I wouldn’t be caught dead without aspirin and some kind of weapon.

They extend into the bucolic fields of Vermont:

What if the state trooper didn’t have to shoot Roland Drake’s other dog – what if, somehow, Jimmy could persuade the writer carpenter and his shepherd-husky mix that, truly, enough was enough? Might that signify an end to the violence, or to the threat of violence?

and they come screaming home to Danny in Toronto when the planes smash into the Twin Towers.

Paradoxically, Danny’s reaction to 9/11 may be the weakest part of the book, when Irving has placed his protagonist at the furthest remove from Twisted River and the past. Of course, Irving may want to make a point about how small acts of violence can skew the scales of fate (see the passage quoted above), but Danny’s agonizing over American politics doesn’t add much to the narrative.

Similarly, the more Danny and his father are surrounded by civilization, the more they fade. The sweet suburbia of Iowa; the cold cleanliness of Toronto; they can’t match the visceral punch that Irving achieves in Twisted River.

For Twisted River is where his characters are most aware of existence consisting of being knee deep in mud (Injun Jane and Six-Pack deserve particular mention on the feminine side of the equation). It is also where Ketchum is most at home, and therefore at his most entertaining.

I would quote you more, but Irving’s deceptive matter-of-fact style makes it hard for a review to do the work justice. Let’s just say it’s a book that might get you thinking about the transience of life (or the illusion of permanence).

Or more simply, it’s a book where surprising things happen. How at any minute a boy might fall from a log or a girl from the sky.

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