Last Night in Twisted River, by John Irving

In John Irving’s latest novel, New Hampshire logging-camp cook Dominic Baciagalupo takes his 12-year-old son Daniel on the run after a violent accident renders them fugitives from a sociopathic lawman. At first this rugged, off-the-grid conceit feels new for Irving, whose 11 previous novels have had more genteel settings, but he employs so many familiar references and ideas that, to this longtime Irving reader, it feels almost as if the author is playing a game by testing my ability to remain inside this novel.            

Irving is known for revisiting what he calls his “obsessions” from book to book—bears, wrestling, prep school, 19th-century literature—and his “greatest fears”— violent accidents, sexual trauma, the death of a parent or child. Throughout his career, he has grappled with some of society’s most contentious topics, including war and patriotism, rape, abortion, child abuse, and religion. Irving does not shy away from emotion or even melodrama, and though his penchant for hammering a theme borders on compulsive, as long as he continues to grow as a writer—to explore his characters more deeply, to find new ways of getting at the truth of experience while continuing to weave his epic-length tales—as a reader, I’ll go along for the ride. Unfortunately, Irving has not been growing as a writer lately (see The Fourth Hand and Until I Find You), and Last Night in Twisted River feels like a cry for help.  

The tale is ostensibly narrated by the omniscient Mr. Irving, but once Daniel reaches high school and begins to write stories, it becomes clear that Danny Angel—Daniel’s future novelist self—is telling the story. All events after this point in the book are filtered through his perception, but this subtle shift in point of view distances the reader from the authenticity of authorial insight. At one point, we learn about the brilliant, writerly imagination of young Daniel from what initially seems to be the perspective of a teacher/mentor who gets Daniel into Exeter on a scholarship. But later it is revealed that Danny has been imagining his mentor’s thoughts from some indeterminate point in the future. We also learn that a strip-club encounter between the not-yet-a-writer Daniel and this teacher becomes the basis for Danny Angel’s first novel, but we never actually see the encounter, just as Irving doesn’t let us witness other pivotal scenes except through Danny’s writerly distance. Danny Angel’s writing life is a significant distraction from what could otherwise be a good book. Danny’s career is Irving’s—in interviews for the book, Irving has not been shy about discussing this parallel—and there are long digressions about critical response to the fictional author’s work, as well as multi-page defenses of Irving’s own prose style and tics, such as his affection for semicolons and long sentences. He also claims that readers are either overly concerned or not concerned enough with whether his writing is autobiographical. As a reader, I assume that writers are inspired by their lives in any number of ways, but what matters to me is what is on the page, how they transform experience from something as mundane as “real life” into art.  

Memorable characters abound in Twisted River: Ketchum, the contrarian, wild-man logger; Kate, Danny’s dangerous, libidinous ex-wife; Ah Gou and Xiao Dee, brothers who own a Chinese restaurant in Iowa; Lady Sky, Carmella, Injun Jane, Six Pack Sam, and the many other women who enter and exit the Baciagalupos’ lives; and even Dominic himself, who, though basically tensionless as a person, is the moral center of the novel. The least formed character is the famous author Danny Angel. He experiences great loss and upheaval at every turn, but we are rarely there with him when it happens—or if we are, Irving injects an authorial aside that undercuts the dramatic moment. We know only that Danny will, invariably, turn his trauma into fiction and then bristle when critics ask him if he writes from his own life. But critical feedback means little to Danny Angel, as I suspect it means little to Irving, so I don’t understand why he spends an entire book provoking an argument he doesn’t really care about and distracting his readers from the story’s important themes—the bonds between a father and son, finding family in unlikely but much needed places, and the lifelong ramifications of choices we make before we are old enough to know better. Irving needs to choose his true audience: readers or reviewers. If it is the latter, where does he go from here? If it is the former, then I implore you, Mr. Irving—come back to us. You are one of America’s greatest contemporary novelists, but we don’t want games and finger tricks; we want the kinds of stories that made us love you in the first place. 

Random House, 554 pages 

This review originally appeared in Pasatiempo on 01/29/2010