Thursday, November 19, 2009

Last Night in Twisted River: Irving's Back, Baby!

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.)


  1. Sounds like another interesting Irving novel. It has been years since I've read anything by him, so maybe this could mark a return. Great review!

  2. @Derek - Yeah, Twisted River would be a great way to re-introduce yourself to Irving. Let me know if you read it - and of course, what you think!

  3. Can't WAIT to read it! My 16-year-old is plowing through all of Irving right now. Makes me SO happy!

  4. Yeah! I'm so glad he's back. I've had high hopes for a return to form, as you said, for the last few novels he published and was disappointed. It sounds like this is one I will be picking up.

  5. I'm also a long-suffering fan. I love Irving but couldn't even bring myself to crack open Until I Find You because of the poor reviews and my dislike of The Fourth Hand. I was waiting until someone read it before I bought a copy but it sounds like it's worth it.

    In related news, I really want to read Let The Great World Spin, but I watched Man on Wire and hated Petit so I've been hestitant to pick it up.

  6. @homebetweenthepages - Until I Find You was just terrible, but yeah, please check out Twisted River if you're an Irving fan.

    Other than your dislike for the dude, is Man on Wire good? It's been in my Blockbuster queue for about a year now...

  7. I liked it, but it was hard to get over the fact that I disliked him. He's sort of the whole point of the movie, and there are interviews with him and I thought he was cocky. Not my fav, but certainly watchable. (Not the best review, I know.)

    And I bought Twisted River on my lunch hour just now :)

  8. OK, so... I've never read an Irving novel. There I said it! But you've got me seriously interested in reading him so I wondered if you have a book you'd recommend I start on? :) Thanks!

  9. @Kathmeista - I think I'd start with The Cider House Rules. It's probably not his best novel, but it's still very good, and it's a good representation of his style and themes. If you want to start with his best, IMO, check out A Prayer for Owen Meany. Hope you enjoy!

  10. Greg-
    Welcome to the party! Thanks for writing such a great review.

    I think I will start with A Prayer for Owen Meany.


  11. I just finished Twisted River and found this link.
    Interesting to see your comment "I hope this isn't it for Irving." because I was thinking the same thing. This book has so many autobiographical elements and his favorite recurring themes, it makes me wonder of he sees it as his last hurrah. I hope not!

    I wrote a blog post about it too, from the food point of view (which I see you thought was too long!).

    I enjoyed Until I Find You, but could not read The Fourth Hand. John Irving is my all time favorite.

  12. Great story, never read anything written quite like this. I think I've read most of John Irving and enjoyed everything he's done. I always expect something different from him and this was not a disappointment.
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  13. I actually read your review to determine if I want to finish reading it or not. I’m a hundred pages in and it occurred to me that at least 20 pages ad nauseam explain everything I never wanted to know about logging. None of that moves the story and I wondered if it ever gets better. I actually feel kind of angry at Irving for taking up so much time and space to say nothing.