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The bears are not what they seem

Here's my review of John Irving's new novel Last Night in Twisted River, which I struggled with for the first 100 or so pages but really grew to like:

Last_night_twisted_river

The bear makes its first appearance on Page 28. Because we're in a John Irving novel, tragedy is practically guaranteed to follow. "It was an accident," a character declares after the unfortunate death that triggers the plot of Last Night in Twisted River. "It's nobody's fault."

Like so much of Irving's work, Last Night in Twisted River unfolds in "a world of accidents'' and coincidences and random bad luck, beginning with the first sentence and the soon-to-be-fallen Angel Pope: "The young Canadian, who could not have been more than fifteen, had hesitated too long." And everyone must share the burden of those misfortunes - and learn to accept grief and mourning as life's permanent counterbalances to joy.

The temptation to label Last Night in Twisted River as a return to form is considerable, especially in the wake of Irving's previous two books, the underwhelming The Fourth Hand and the bloated, exasperating Until I Find You. The new story abounds with melancholic humor and comic absurdity, and its themes amount to a greatest-hits recap of his 11 previous novels.

 But Irving is bent on more than just giving readers what they want. Spanning five decades, Last Night begins, somewhat fitfully, in 1954 in a fly-speck logging settlement in New Hampshire, where a widowed cook, Dominic Baciagalupo, and his 12-year-old son Danny prepare meals for the rough-hewn men who work and live there. Irving, who has always been fond of exploring specific processes and professions, delves deeply into the mechanics of the dangerous logging industry. The details don't always make for riveting reading: "Before the advent of mechanical loaders, the logs were unloaded by releasing trip bunks on the sides of the trucks - this allowed an entire load to roll off a truck at once."

Indian-cap  But the characters gradually start to take root: The overprotective Dominic, always with watchful eye trained on his son; his old friend Ketchum, a bear of a man who was also close to Dominic's late wife, and Injun Jane, a large woman with "a ton of coal-black hair'' perpetually topped by a Cleveland Indians baseball cap.

Jane, one of the few indelible women in a book populated primarily by men, works as a dishwasher at the camp, has been Danny's baby sitter since he was 2 and shares a relationship with Dominic that's a lot more intimate than that of a mere co-worker. With Ketchum, she will be a life-changing influence on Danny in ways not initially apparent.

 Beginning with a jump to Boston in 1967, Last Night in Twisted River becomes a story of the fugitive Dominic and Danny, who repeatedly change identity and uproot their lives over the next 40 years, on the run from a murderous cop with an implacable thirst for vengeance. Despite its thriller trappings - and the often outlandish adventures the characters endure - Last Night in Twisted River ultimately becomes Irving's most personal and revealing exploration of the writing process.

While still a boy, Danny discovers that "all writers must know how to distance themselves, to detach themselves from this and that emotional moment," so they can later recreate and reflect on it through their fiction. Like Irving, Danny attends the Iowa Writers Workshop, where one of his teachers is Kurt Vonnegut.

 Also like Irving, Danny is overly fond of semicolons and becomes a bestselling author, evJohn-Irving en writing a novel (like Irving's The Cider House Rules) about abortion. At times he reaches conclusions that are not-so-subtly aimed at critics of Irving's style of storytelling (‘‘He was too young to know that, in any novel with a reasonable amount of forethought, there were no coincidences'').

 Last Night in Twisted River can't be considered an outright autobiographical novel: Surely Irving never had to deal with a seemingly evil blue Ford Mustang as a harbinger of death or encountered a nude skydiver parachuting into a pig pen. But this agile, sometimes tricky novel is the closest he has come to meta-fiction, with sudden shifts in points of view that give new meaning to the passage you have just read and leaps in chronology that keep crucial incidents offstage.

There are even times when Irving directly addresses those who psychoanalyze his work and pore over his novels for insights into him. "In the media, real life was more important than fiction; those elements of a novel that were, at least, based on personal experience were of more interest to the general public than those pieces of the novel-writing process that were ‘merely' made up."

Irving's commentary on the creative process might have been better served in a nonfiction essay, though. The chief - and considerable - pleasure of Last Night in Twisted River is its unwavering focus on the affecting bond between father and son, which is relatively new territory for Irving, and the suspenseful and eventful journey of their lives.

And after two disappointing books, Irving confirms that his knack for creating humorously bizarre and excessive, but still credible characters remains intact. "Let me see if I have this right," Danny asks the woman he marries in the late 1960s. "You're not just an anti-war activist and a sexual anarchist, you're also this radical chick who specializes in serial babymaking for draft dodgers - have I got that right?"

Yes, you do. Welcome back, Mr. Irving.

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