Last Night in Twisted River (Irving)

Last Night in Twisted River
John Irving, 2009
Random House
592 pp.
ISBN-13: 9780345479730

In 1954, in the cookhouse of a logging and sawmill settlement in northern New Hampshire, an anxious twelve-year-old boy mistakes the local constable’s girlfriend for a bear. 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. Their lone protector is a fiercely libertarian logger, once a river driver, who befriends them.

In a story spanning five decades, Last Night in Twisted River—John Irving’s twelfth novel—depicts the recent half-century in the United States as “a living replica of Coos County, where lethal hatreds were generally permitted to run their course.” From the novel’s taut opening sentence—“The young Canadian, who could not have been more than fifteen, had hesitated too long”—to its elegiac final chapter, Last Night in Twisted River is written with the historical authenticity and emotional authority of The Cider House Rules and A Prayer for Owen Meany. It is also as violent and disturbing a story as John Irving’s breakthrough bestseller, The World According to Garp.

What further distinguishes Last Night in Twisted River is the author’s unmistakable voice—the inimitable voice of an accomplished storyteller. Near the end of this moving novel, John Irving writes: “We don’t always have a choice how we get to know one another. Sometimes, people fall into our lives cleanly—as if out of the sky, or as if there were a direct flight from Heaven to Earth—the same sudden way we lose people,who once seemed they would always be part of our lives.” (From the publisher.)

Author Bio 
Birth—March 2, 1942
Where—Exeter, New Hampshire, USA
Education—B.A., University of New Hampshire; M.F.A., Iowa
   Writers' Workshop
Awards—American Book Award (Garp); Academy Award, 
   Best Screenplay (Cider House)
Currently—lives in Vermont

It was as a struggling, withdrawn student at Phillips Exeter, the New Hampshire prep school where his stepfather taught Russian history, that John Irving discovered the two great loves of his life: writing and wrestling. Modestly, he attributes his success in both endeavors to dogged perseverance. "My life in wrestling was one-eighth talent and seven-eighths discipline," he confessed in his 1996 mini-memoir The Imaginary Girlfriend. "I believe that my life as a writer consists of one-eighth talent and seven-eighths discipline, too."

Certainly, patience and stamina have served Irving well—in both wrestling (he competed until he was 34, coached well into his 40s, and was inducted into the National Wrestling Hall of Fame in 1992) and writing. His first book, Setting Free the Bears, was published in 1968 to respectable reviews but sold poorly. Over the course of the next ten years, he wrote two more unsuccessful novels (The Water-Method Man and The 158-Pound Marriage).

Then, in 1978, Irving hit the jackpot with The World According to Garp, a freewheeling comic saga incorporating motifs he would revisit many times over—feminism, adultery, violence, grotesquerie, and an overriding sense of impending doom. Garp received a National Book Award nomination and became an instant cult classic. It also paved the way for a string of bestsellers, including The Hotel New Hampshire, The Cider House Rules, A Prayer for Owen Meaney, and The Fourth Hand, to name a few.

While none of his novels are strictly autobiographical, Irving has never denied that certain elements from his life have seeped into his books, most notably the pervading "presence" of his biological father, John Wallace Blunt, a man Irving never knew. Raised by his mother and a stepfather he loved dearly, Irving had denied for years any curiosity about his absent parent, but the figure of the missing father haunted his writing like a specter. In 2005, he laid the ghost to rest with the publication of Until I Find You, a searing story that took shape slowly and painfully over the better part of a decade. Writing the novel also allowed the author to wrestle with a closely guarded secret from his past—just like the novel's protagonist Jack Burns, Irving was sexually abused as a preteen by an older woman. In an eerily timed coincidence, while he was crafting the novel, Irving was contacted by a man named Chris Blunt, who identified himself as the son of Irving's biological father. Twenty years younger than Irving, his half-brother told Irving that their father had died in 1995. Although Irving was devastated by the experience, he now feels as if he is able to turn the page and move on.

In addition to his novels, Irving has also written a collection of short stories and essays (1995's "Trying to Save Piggy Sneed") and several screenplays, including his Oscar-winning adaptation of The Cider House Rules. He chronicled the experience of bringing his novel to the screen in the 1999 memoir My Movie Business.

• Irving struggled in school with a learning disability that was probably undiagnosed dyslexia. Today, he considers it something of a blessing. Forced to read slowly, he savored each word and literally fell in love with language and literature.

• In a 2001 interview with the now-defunct Book magazine, Irving confessed, "The characters in my novels, from the very first one, are always on some quixotic effort of attempting to control something that is uncontrollable—some element of the world that is essentially random and out of control."

• Although the results have been mixed at best, film versions have been made of several Irving novels, including The World According to Garp, The Hotel New Hampshire, and The Cider House Rules, which won for Irving a Best Adapted Screenplay Oscar. In addition, the movie Simon Birch was loosely based on A Prayer for Owen Meaney, and the first third of Irving's novel A Widow for One Year became the acclaimed film The Door in the Floor.

• One of Irving's great literary influences was Kurt Vonnegut, his teacher and mentor at the Iowa Writers' Workshop. The two writers remained close friends until Vonnegut's death in 2007.

• Irving has two tattoos: a maple leaf (in honor of his Canadian wife) on his left shoulder, and the starting circle of a wrestling match on his right forearm.

• The influence of Charles Dickens is evident in Irving's novels, sprawling epics with huge casts of colorful, eccentric characters and lots of complex plot points that crop up, disappear for hundreds of pages, then resurface unexpectedly. He writes voluminously and in great detail; he refuses to use a computer; and he begins at the end, writing the last sentence of each novel first. He describes himself as a craftsman and claims that he owes his success more to rewrites, ruthless editing, and infinite patience than to artistic genius. (Bio from Barnes & Noble.)

Book Reviews
Last Night in Twisted River showcases all of John Irving’s biggest liabilities as a writer: a tricked-up, gimmicky plot; cartoony characters; absurd contrivances; cheesy sentimentality; and a thoroughly preposterous ending. And yet, at the same time, it evolves into a deeply felt and often moving story—a story that with some diligent editing might have ranked right up there with The World According to Garp (1978) and A Widow for One Year (1998) as one of Mr. Irving’s more powerful works.
Michiko Kakutani - New York Times

There’s plenty of evidence of Irving’s agility as a writer in Last Night in Twisted River. He is adept at following an accident through its intricate consequences. His evocations of sounds and smells and tactile sensations, especially those provoked by Dominic’s expert cooking, are tantalizing. And some of the comic moments are among the most memorable that Irving has written, including the scene when a naked female skydiver, one of the novel’s many voluptuaries, makes an unfortunate landing smack in the middle of a pigpen. Given Irving’s skill, it’s especially frustrating to see him working so hard to spell out the import of the fiction.... In his bid to make something “serious,” Irving has risked distracting readers from what otherwise could be a moving, cohesive story.
Joanna Scott - New York Times Book Review

Everything that makes John Irving such a wonderful writer is on display in the opening section of his 12th novel, Last Night in Twisted River. And everything that makes him such a maddening one is evident in the 450 rambling pages that follow.... Ironically, the novel only soars when we read the parts that Danny has supposedly written...a haunting chapter in the middle about a pig roast interrupted by a naked sky diver, and another one later on about Danny's son. These parts are full of captivating characters, well-polished prose and heartbreak-ing insights into the joys and terrors of parenthood. But...[fictional author] Danny Baciagalupo's marvelous novel is smothered inside John Irving's dull one. If only somebody could have helped it get out and breathe.
Ron Charles - Washington Post

Irving returns with a scattershot novel, the overriding themes, locations and sensibilities of which will probably neither surprise longtime fans nor win over the uninitiated. Dominic “Cookie” Baciagalupo and his son, Danny, work the kitchen of a New Hampshire logging camp overlooking the Twisted River, whose currents claimed both Danny's mother and, as the novel opens, mysterious newcomer Angel Pope. Following an Irvingesque appearance of bears, Cookie and Danny's “world of accidents” expands, precipitating a series of adventures both literary and culinary. The ensuing 50-year slog follows the Baciagalupos from a Boston Italian restaurant to an Iowa City Chinese joint and finally a Toronto French cafe, while dovetailing clumsily with Danny's career as the distinctly Irving-like writer Danny Angel. The story's vicariousness is exacerbated by frequent changes of scene, self-conscious injections of how writers must “detach themselves” and a cast of invariably flat characters. With conflict this meandering and characters this limp, reflexive gestures come off like nostalgia and are bound to leave readers wishing Irving had detached himself even more.
Publishers Weekly

Irving's new doorstopper addresses a strong theme-the role accident plays in even the most carefully planned and managed lives-but doesn't always stick to the subject. His logjam of a narrative focuses on the life and times of Danny Baciagalupo, who navigates the roiling waters of growing up alongside his widowed father Dominic, a crippled logging-camp cook employed by a company that plies its dangerous trade along the zigzag Twisted River, north of New Hampshire's Androscoggin River in Robert Frost's old neighborhood of Coos County. The story begins swiftly and compellingly in 1954, when a river accident claims the life of teenaged Canadian sawmill worker Angel Pope, whom none of his co-workers really know. Irving's characters live in a "world of accidents" whose by-products include Dominic's maiming and the death of his young wife in a mishap similar to Angel's. All is nicely done throughout the novel's assured and precisely detailed early pages. But trouble looms and symbols clash when Danny mistakenly thinks a constable's lady friend is a bear, and admirers of The Cider House Rules (1985) and A Prayer for Owen Meany (1989) will anticipate that Large Meanings prowl these dark woods. The narrative flattens out as we follow the Baciagalupos south to Boston, thence to Iowa (where we're treated to a lengthy account of Danny's studies, surely not unlike Irving's own, at the Iowa Writers' Workshop), and an enormity of specifics and generalizations about Danny's career as bestselling author "Danny Angel." The tale spans 50 years, and Danny's/Irving's penchant for commentary on the psyche, obligations and disappointments of the writer's life makes those years feel like centuries. Will entertain the faithful and annoy readers who think this author has already written the same novel too many times.
Kirkus Reviews

Discussion Questions 
Use our LitLovers Book Club Resources; they can help with discussions for any book:

How to Discuss a Book (helpful discussion tips)
Generic Discussion Questions—Fiction and Nonfiction
Read-Think-Talk (a guided reading chart)

Also consider these LitLovers talking points to help get a discussion started for Last Night in Twisted River.

1. Like a number of Irving's novels, this one is concerned with a father and son. What is the relationship between Danny and his father Dominic? And how would you describe both of the characters?

2. One of the central ideas of this book is the precarious—even random—nature of life. How does Irving explore that theme throughout the novel? What are some of the inexplicable coincidences and accidents? Did the bizarre occurrences enrich the story for you..or irritate you?

3. Irving can be an ingeniously funny writer. Point out some of the many humorous parts in Twister River.

4. Why does Danny become an author? What does he try to accomplish with his writing? Talk about the ways this book reflects on the art of fiction. Consider these two quotations from the book:

Fiction is "both autobiographical and not autobiographical at the same time."

"All writers must know how to distance themselves, to detach themselves from this and that emotional moment."

How might these remarks apply to Danny...or to John Irving himself?

5. As father and son move from New Hampshire to Boston to Iowa, Vermont and Toronto, the book takes us back and forth in time—often out of sequence. Were you able to patch together a chronological timeline? Think about why Irving might be playing with time sequence—what affect does it have on the plot...or theme...?

6. Ketchum is Dominic's best friend: "Everything about Ketchum was hardened and sharp-edged, like a whittled-down stick—and, as Danny had observed, 'wicked tough.' " What do you think of Ketchum?

7. Do you find Constable Carl's chase believable or not? If you've seen Les Miserables, can you see a comparison between Carl and Inspector Javert?

8. Have you read other Irving novels? If so, how does this one stack up against the others? Are there similarities?

(Questions by LitLovers. Please feel free to use them, online or off with attribution. Thanks.)

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