I’ll start with by answering the question that (I imagine) John Irvings’ many fans—assuming that there are any who haven’t read this yet—are asking. Yes, the John Irving who wrote Last Night in Twisted River is the good John Irving, the one who produced The World According to Garp and A Prayer for Owen Meany, not the John Irving who produced the flawed (albeit still interesting) Until I Find You.
In a television interview about Until I Find You (the vague citation is due to the fact that I can’t remember where I saw it, but I think it was this one), John Irving talked about rewriting the novel and removing the first=person narration to make it less personal—to distance himself, a bit, from the fire of the somewhat autobiographical events. Alas, it also distanced us, the readers. I am happy to report that Last Night in Twisted River is the product of an author completely unafraid to brave the danger and plunge deeply into the river that twists through his own psyche. The journey, part Twain, part Dickens, and all Irving, is one well worth taking.
Oh, and the answer to one other question that Irving fans will be asking: yes, there are bears in Last Night in Twisted River, although the remain just off stage. There’s even a wrestler or two, and the shadow of boarding school.
The novel begins at a mid-20th Century logging camp, where a series of three tragedies, each more gut-wrenching than the last, sends widower and camp cook Dominic Baciagalupo and his son Danny on a rootless journey into exile. The rest of the novel follows father and son over five decades as they travel to a Boston Italian restaurant, an Iowa City Chinese place, and finally to a Toronto French cafe, all while never really leaving the past behind.
As they travel, Danny evolves into a distinctly Irving-esque writer. The novel is structured in a winding sort of way that keeps twisting (like, well, a river) back around on itself, moving backward and forward in time to show how events, both accidental and arranged, shape, wound, and temper the life and career of a budding novelist. Yes, that makes the novel seem at times redundant, while at others morsels of plot are dangled in a tantalizing way—and we don’t see the consequences until much later. That didn’t bother me. The stark, lean sentences and well-crafted main characters earned enough trust to keep me turning the pages. Sometimes late into the night.
It’s not a perfect novel. Outside of Danny and his father, and the old logger Ketchum, few of the characters seem to grow beyond one dimension. They are types. The novel feels a bit self-indulgent at times, and critics will certainly be combing the pages for hints of autobiography. Nonetheless, it’s still an utterly fascinating read. If you’re not an Irving fan, I can’t say that this is the book that’s likely to change your mind. Thankfully, if you are a fan, it’s not likely to change your mind, either. In many ways, it’s a return to form. If there are elements that will remind you of earlier novels, and there most likely will be, they are viewed (or reviewed) from a fresh enough perspective to make them as interesting as ever. Irving certainly isn’t the first author to revisit a theme. I suppose that, like a Dickens story, there are elements (or archetypes) that make an Irving novel distinct, a part of his personal mythology, as it were. Revisiting expands, rather than diminishes, them.
This is an Irving novel that belongs on the shelf with Garp, Owen Meany, and The Cider House Rules. It’s quintessential Irving, and it’s a welcome return of an author re-achieving, if not actually exceeding, his previous heights. It’s a fascinating, revealing, and engaging read, and one I am certain that I will return to again.