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

John Irving is an American novelist and Academy Award-winning screenwriter.

Irving achieved critical and popular acclaim in 1978 after the international success of The World According to Garp in 1978. A number of of his novels, such as The Cider House Rules (1985), A Prayer for Owen Meany (1989), and A Widow for One Year (1998), have been bestsellers. He won the Academy Award for Best Adapted Screenplay in 1999 for his script The Cider House Rules.

Early years and career
Irving was born John Wallace Blunt, Jr. in Exeter, New Hampshire, the son of Helen Frances (nee Winslow) and John Wallace Blunt, Sr., a writer and executive recruiter. The couple parted during pregnancy, and Irving grew as the stepson of a Phillips Exeter Academy faculty member, Colin Franklin Newell Irving (as well as the nephew of another faculty member, H. Hamilton "Hammy" Bissell). Irving attended Phillips Exeter and participated in school wrestling program, both as a student athlete and as assistant coach. Wrestling features prominently in his books, stories, and life.

Irving's biological father, a World War II pilot, was shot down over Burma in 1943, although he survived. Irving learned of his father's heroism only in 1981 and incorporated the incident into The Cider House Rules. He never met has father, however, even though on occasion Blunt attended his son's wrestling competitions.

Irving's published his first novel, Setting Free the Bears (1968) when he was only 26. The book was reasonably well reviewed but failed to gain a large readership. In the late 1960s, he studied with Kurt Vonnegut at the University of Iowa Writers' Workshop. His second and third novels, The Water-Method Man (1972) and The 158-Pound Marriage (1974), were similarly received. In 1975, Irving accepted a position as assistant professor of English at Mount Holyoke College.

World According to Garp
Frustrated at the lack of promotion his novels were receiving from Random House, his first publisher, Irving moved to Dutton. Dutton made a strong commitment to his new novel—The World According to Garp (1978), and the book became an international bestseller and cultural phenomenon. It was a finalist for the National Book Award for Fiction in 1979 but won the award the following year when the paperback edition was issued.

The film version of Garp came out in 1982 with Robin Williams in the title role and Glenn Close as his mother; it garnered several Academy Award nominations, including nominations for Close and John Lithgow. Irving makes a brief cameo in the film as an official in one of Garp's high school wrestling matches.

After Garp
Garp transformed Irving from an obscure, academic literary writer to a household name, and his subsequent books were bestsellers. The next was The Hotel New Hampshire (1981), which sold well despite mixed reviews from critics. It, too, was adapted to film, starring Jodie Foster, Rob Lowe, and Beau Bridges. Irving also received the 1981 O. Henry Award for "Interior Space," a short story published in Fiction magazine in 1980.

In 1985, Irving published The Cider House Rules. An epic set in a Maine orphanage, the novel's central topic is abortion. Many drew parallels between the novel and Charles Dickens' Oliver Twist (1838). It took Irving nearly 10 years to develop the screenplay for Cider House, and the film—starring Michael Caine, Tobey Maguire, and Charlize Theron—was released in 1998. It was nominated for several Academy Awards, including Best Picture, and earned Irving an Academy Award for Best Adapted Screenplay.

In 1989, four years after publishing Cider House, Irving came out with A Prayer for Owen Meany, also set in a New England boarding school (and Toronto). The novel was influenced by Gunter Grass's 1959 The Tin Drum, and contains allusions to Nathaniel Hawthorne's The Scarlet Letter and works of Dickens. Owen Meany was Irving's best selling book since Garp and, today, remains on many high school reading lists.

That book, too, was later adapted to film: the 1998 Simon Birch. Irving insisted that the title and character names be changed because the screenplay was "markedly different" from the novel. He is on record, however, as having enjoyed the film.

Other works
In addition to his novels, he has also published nonfiction: The Imaginary Girlfriend (1995), a short memoir focusing on writing and wrestling; Trying to Save Piggy Sneed (1996), a collection of his writings, which includes a brief memoir and short stories; and My Movie Business (1999), an account of the protracted process of bringing The Cider House Rules to the big screen,

In 2004 he published a children's picture book, A Sound Like Someone Trying Not to Make a Sound, illustrated by Tatjana Hauptmann. It had originally been included in his 1998 novel A Widow for One Year.

Since the publication of Garp, which made him independently wealthy, Irving has been able to concentrate solely on fiction writing as a vocation, sporadically accepting short-term teaching positions —including one at his alma mater, the Iowa Writers' Workshop—and serving as an assistant coach on his sons' high school wrestling teams. (Irving was inducted into the National Wrestling Hall of Fame in 1992 as an "Outstanding American.")

Irving's four most highly regarded novels—The World According to Garp, The Cider House Rules, A Prayer for Owen Meany, and the 1998 A Widow for One Year—have been published in Modern Library editions.  In 2004, a portion of A Widow for One Year was adapted into The Door in the Floor, starring Jeff Bridges and Kim Basinger.

On June 28, 2005, the New York Times published an article revealing that Until I Find You (2005) contains two elements about his personal life that he had never before discussed publicly: his sexual abuse at age 11 by an older woman, and the recent entrance in his life of his biological father's family.

1968 - Setting Free the Bears
1972 - The Water-Method Man
1974 -  The 158-Pound Marriage
1978 - The World According to Garp
1981 - The Hotel New Hampshire
1985 - The Cider House Rules
1989 - A Prayer for Owen Meany
1994 - A Son of the Circus
1995 - The Imaginary Girlfriend (non-fiction)
1996 - Trying to Save Piggy Sneed (collection)
1998 - A Widow for One Year
1999 - My Movie Business (non-fiction)
1999 - The Cider House Rules: A Screenplay
2001 - The Fourth Hand
2004 - A Sound Like Someone Trying Not to Make a Sound (Children's book)
2005 - Until I Find You
2009 - Last Night in Twisted River
2012 - In One Person
2015- Avenue of Mysteries
(Author bio adapted from Wikipedia. Retrieved 10/12/2015.)

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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