About midway through John Irving's new novel, a skydiver is blown a bit off course and accidentally lands in a poop-filled pig pen. Oh yeah, and the skydiver is a rather large woman...and she's naked. The scene makes about as much sense in the scheme of the plot of the novel as it does here. But Irving's latest effort is so carefully constructed, so deliberately and cautiously revealed, that by the time you're reading this scene, you've already learned that such absurdities aren't just slapstick, they have a precise meaning, and all will be made clear eventually.
Last Night in Twisted River is a return to form for Irving, and an absolute godsend for his long-suffering fans (and we DID suffer through The Fourth Hand and Until I Find You!). It contains all the Irving signatures: It's laced with symbolism; it's populated with his requisite tragic, fatalistic characters; and it alternates between hilarious and deeply, deeply affecting.
The story unfolds over the course of 50 years, following Danny Baciagalupa and his father Dominic through life's follies and fortuities. All the while, their invective-spouting friend Ketchum ('Constipated Christ!,' 'Mountains of moose shit!', e.g.) a woodsman and logger, watches carefully over them, giving them advice and helping them navigate their thorniest dilemmas. This includes the event that really sets the novel in motion. Twelve-year old Danny mistakes his father's lover for a bear. While she and his father Dominic are in a rather "compromising" position, and thinking he's saving Dominic from a mauling, Danny bashes the woman over the head with a cast iron skillet. The novel hurdles forth from there.
The book isn't without a few annoyances, though. For instance, the first sentence of the jacket blurb reveals the plot point (woman mistaken for bear, brained with skillet) on which the rest of the novel hinges. But that scene doesn't occur until 100 pages into the novel, which makes you hustle through the first few chapters, possibly missing key details. Also, there are a few political-rant detours, which just seemed out of place in such an elegantly told and carefully built novel. Finally, parts are just slow. You could put a positive spin on it and say Irving was measuring his pacing, and maybe he was, but that doesn't make parts where he painstakingly describes food, and peripheral characters' histories any more interesting.
Despite these, I'd still recommend the book, especially (ESPECIALLY!) to fans of Irving's previous work. The story itself is just magnificent, and my mind is totally boggled, looking back at the whole thing, at the talent and craft required to fit it all together. Let's just hope this isn't it for Irving -- that he's got a few more Twisted Rivers in store for us!
(PS. The heavy favorite, Colum McCann's Let The Great World Spin, avoided the upset and brought home the National Book Award for Fiction at a ceremony last night in New York. From what I've heard about it, the award is well-deserved. If you've read the book, please comment below with a few thoughts about it.)