John Irving

Too many tangents, too many leaps in time and an overwhelming feeling of John Irving déjà vu.

That’s how I felt reading “Last Night in Twisted River.”

“Twisted River” is a long haul.  It’s a real commitment to dive into these 550-plus pages.  At least it’s not the 800-page plunge of “Until I Find You,” but I don’t think “Twisted River” is much better for being “shorter.”

I used to consider myself a solid Irving fan.  Enjoyed “Owen Meany,” loved “A Widow For One Year,” found “Hotel New Hampshire” different and funny, dug “Garp,” and thought when I read “Cider House Rules” that it was one of the finest books I’d ever read.  But “The Fourth Hand,” “A Son of the Circus,” and “Until I Find You” left me flat.

I would put “Twisted River” in the latter camp.

last night in twisted riverIt’s too random and it’s too dispassionate.  And it covers familiar thematic ground. The scenery changes (slightly) but the themes don’t discover much new Irving turf.

“Twisted River” is again, a story of family history injected with common Irving topics —bears, wrestling, startling accidents, mistaken identity, hidden identity, odd nicknames, misspellings, deformity and many bizarre scenes (such as a nude woman parachuting into a pig sty).  At the core, it’s the family and the drama and encounters that form the stuffing of Irving’s characters. They tend to, well, dwell on things.

“But family histories—chiefly, perhaps, the stores we are told as children—invade our most basic instincts and inform our deepest memories, especially in an emergency,” states the narrator early on (if page 94 is “early on”) as Danny Baciagalupo is about to make a serious and deadly mistake.

And (no surprise here), Danny becomes a writer.  I don’t know the details of Irving’s life but it’s clear he draws heavily from personal experience. Danny spends time at the Iowa Writers Workshop and has peculiar rules about selling his novels to Hollywood for screenplay development, an issue which Irving has written about in non-fiction form. “Twisted River” becomes a mobius strip of real life-character-real life-character.

Danny Angel (after he changes his name) becomes a novelist and turns to his own life—the early chapters of “Twisted River”—for inspiration.  There are many passages where the fictional writers ponders the merits of building his stories around what happened to him as a youth. “Yet who was the audience for Danny Angel, or any other novelist, defending the fiction in fiction writing? Students of creative writing? Women of a certain age in book clubs, because weren’t most bookclub members usually women of a certain age? Who else was more interested in fiction than in so-called real life? Not Danny Angel’s interviewers, evidently; the first question they always asked had to do with what was “real” about this or that novel.”

There are too many scenes in kitchens and restaurants—in the logging camp in northern New Hampshire, in Boston’s north end Italian neighborhood, and in Iowa.  The following paragraph might make you hungry but I’m putting it here as a sample of the kind of going-nowhere passages that make up the stuffing of this book. And by “stuffing” I mean it has the feeling of filler.

“The calamari the cook was preparing for his son, Daniel, was the forever kind. Tony Angel slowly stewed it with canned tomatoes and tomato paste—and with garlic, basil, red pepper flakes, and black olives. The cook added the pine nuts and chopped parsley only at the end, and he served the squid over penne, with more chopped parsley on the side. (Never with Parmesan—not on calamari.) He would give Daniel just a small arugula salad after the pasta dish, maybe with a little goat cheese; he had a local Vermont chèvre that was pretty good.”

You could trim the chèvre fat of this book and you’d be down under 500 pages.

In the end, the “plot” of “Twisted River” happens to Danny. He bounces through life.  He doesn’t take charge. Life swirls around him. Women come and go; we have precious little information about how the relationships begin or how they were sparked.

The most quoted line from the book comes near the end: “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,” the narrator states.

That summarizes the feeling I had reading “Twisted River.” It reads like a  of events that happened—one after the other—with no explanation and very little purpose other than to showcase Irving’s odd mind.


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