I have no doubt that John Irving is a brilliant writer. Some have compared him to a modern day Charles Dickens. His ability with words, his way of dealing with a nonlinear plot extraordinary, and while I’ve not read every book he’s published –this will be the sixth out of the thirteen he’s published that I’ve read- Last Night in Twisted River reflects how maddeningly difficult he can be as well.
It’s a story within a story that shows the development of a novelist and the writing process. It begins in 1954, in the cookhouse of a logging and sawmills settlement in northern New Hampshire. Danny is an anxious twelve-year-old, who lives with his widowed farther. One night he is awoken to odd sounds coming from his father’s room. Still not fully awake, he sees his father having sex with the local constable’s girlfriend, but in his still sleepy eyed state, he thinks a bear is attacking his father; with a large skillet, he accidentally kills the woman. Now both the twelve-year-old and his father become fugitives, forced to run from Coos County–to Boston, to southern Vermont, to Toronto–pursued by the implacable constable. They do have one friend, a lone protector who is a fiercely libertarian logger named Ketchum. Once river driver, Ketchum keeps Danny and his Dad, Dominic, up to date on the goings on in Twisted River.
In the early part of the book, Irving does capture the turbulent times, with its mixture of violence and camaraderie that marks the lives of these tough men and a few even tougher women, French Canadian immigrants and Indians, anyone who wants or needs to work miles from civilization. Life, and death, is a way of life in Twisted River, as the book opens with the tragic loss of a 15 year-old boy, who slips on the wet logs and drowns (this sets up a mystery that's pursued much later).
Still, the book takes forever to get going –and I might be even tempted to say it never gets above five miles an hour. Part of the problem is the focus of the novel; Danny, who becomes this weary kid who grows up to be a successful writer (which brought to mind what teachers of writing tell their students: write what you know. Stephen King is another writer who has a tendency to create characters who just happen to be writers). I know Irving has said many times that his novels are not autobiographical, yet you can’t help but think that Danny seems to have the same arc as author did. In this book, Danny went to Exeter College, he worked as an art model and he studied with Kurt Vonnegut at the University of Iowa Writers' Workshop, just like John Irving. Danny also publishes a couple of moderately successful novels in his 20s, just like John Irving. His fourth book is an international bestseller that's made into a popular movie, much like what happened to Irving with his World According to Garp novel. Also, Irving –via through Danny it seems- takes swipes at reviewers who take notes that Danny (and Irving) reuses the same themes again and again.
It’s very Meta at times.
This is perhaps the dullest of the six novels I’ve read by him, but there still are some great parts in the book –the first half especially. Once the novel moves out of Twisted River, it wanders too much and that slows the book down to crawl. The villain, if can call him that, is the Sheriff (also known as the Cowboy) who still peruses Dominic for the death of girlfriend, is sort of gut-less and hateful bigot. Yet not hateful enough where the reader feels any dislike for him or his eventual fate. The book is somewhat redeemed later, but it’s still better than a lot of other stuff that gets released these days.