Tuesday, September 25, 2012

Review: Last Night in Twisted River by John Irving

Maine logging camp kitchen, 1948 (via)
 Reviewed by Christina

Published: 2009

It's about:  Spanning 50 years and multiple locales, this novel chronicles the lives of the Baciagalupo men.  Our dear protagonist is Daniel Baciagalupo, an innocent boy who commits a tragic act of accidental manslaughter and subsequently flees the logging town of Twisted River with his father.  They spend most of their lives on the run, repeatedly picking up and settling down in different places.  Daniel becomes a famous author and has a son of his own.  They maintain a close friendship with a larger-than-life lumberjack type named Ketchum, who continually warns the Baciagalupos of the inescapability of the past.

I thought: It's nice to have at least one author you can count on, eh?  I mean, whenever I pick up a John Irving novel (this is my fourth) I know I can expect to be intellectually engaged, entertained, and a little scandalized.  Irving's prose is straightforward, but his stories are wonderfully creative.  There are always these slightly absurd plot elements and big, colorful characters.  I always think "Yeah!  THIS is a story!" But if you remember my review of The Cider House Rules, you already know how much I dig Mr. Irving.

I gotta say, though, that I didn't love Twisted River as much as his earlier books.  One of the things I appreciated most about the others was the amount of research John Irving must have put into at least one topic; I felt like I learned about something important in Owen Meany, Garp, and Cider House.  But in Last Night in Twisted River, the one well-researched subject was (*yawn!*) mid-century logging practices.  The logging info and geography hit the reader pretty hard from the get-go, and I felt a much slower pull into the story than I ever have from Mr. Irving before.

Last Night in Twisted River is John Irving's most autobiographical piece of fiction, I think, and I did enjoy watching for that.  How much of Danny Baciagalupo's character is also John Irving's?  His politics?  His writing methods?  His attitude toward autobiographical elements in fictions and especially the inevitable interview questions about said elements?  Mr. Irving also throws in a sort of metafictional twist at the end that I thought was sorta cool.  

Even with all the unnecessary logging details and thinly veiled autobiography, there isn't a strong unifying idea behind Last Night in Twisted River.  It's about a whole bunch of things: the formation and career of a novelist, and the impossibility of escaping the past, and the old flight/revenge framework, and big strong women = bears, and what it's like to lose one's child.  But nothing really holds the story together.  I saw a snippet from another review that called it "a loose and baggy tale in search of a center" and yeah, I can see that.  This book is always entertaining, but it's definitely not taut.

Verdict: This is probably my least favorite of the Irving I've read, but I still like and respect it more than most books.  So Stick it on the shelf.

Reading Recommendations: It's so wintery! 

Warnings:  sex, swears, drug use, violence

Favorite excerpts:  “Six-Pack didn't despise George W. Bush to the degree that Ketchum did, but she thought the president was a smirking twerp and a dumbed-down daddy's boy, and she agreed with Ketchum's assessment that Bush would be as worthless as wet crap in even the smallest crisis. If a fight broke out between two small dogs, for example, Ketchum claimed that Bush would call the fire department and ask them to bring a hose; then the president would position himself at a safe distance from the dogfight, and wait for the firemen to show up. The part Pam liked best about this assessment was that Ketchum said the president would instantly look self-important, and would appear to be actively involved--that is, once the firefighters and their hose arrived, and provided there was anything remaining of the mess the two dogs might have made of each other in the interim.”

“He was too young to know that, in any novel with a reasonable amount of forethought, there were no coincidences.”

“If we live long enough, we become caricatures of ourselves.” 

What I'm reading nextThe Einstein Syndrome: Bright Children Who Talk Late by Thomas Sowell