Monday, August 24, 2020

the last book I read

Last Night In Twisted River by John Irving.

It's 1954, and we're in the inhospitable northern counties of New Hampshire, right up next to the Canadian border. It's a man's life up here, especially in logging season where the river drivers risk life and limb to get the logs downstream on the swollen rivers, breaking up logjams and occasionally dynamiting some sense into them. It's not all fun, though, and occasionally someone's footwork isn't nimble enough and they get crushed or drowned under several tons of moving timber.

This is where we come in, as Dominic Baciagalupo and his twelve-year-old son Daniel witness a young novice river driver slip under the logs and vanish without trace. Dominic isn't a log driver, though, he's a cook, running the cookhouse in the logging settlement of Twisted River. As you can imagine these are pretty rough-and-ready communities, populated by some robust types none too fussed about adherence to high-falutin' social norms like table manners or personal hygiene or sobriety.

Dominic has found a niche in the community, though, after settling there with his wife, Rosie, who subsequently died in a log-related accident out on the river while horsing around with Dominic and his grizzled river driver friend Ketchum. It's one of Dominic's subsequent girlfriends, Injun Jane, who provides the catalyst for most of the story that follows. She's the girlfriend of the local sheriff, Carl, a mean and ornery type who you don't want to get on the wrong side of, especially once he's got a drink or two inside him. That she is also Dominic's clandestine lover seems to have been a secret from just about everyone, including (somewhat implausibly) Danny, so that when he enters his Dad's bedroom to find a large dark-haired figure sitting on top of him in bed (she's a big unit, Injun Jane) he naturally assumes his father is being attacked by a bear and clocks the supposed assailant on the head with a cast-iron skillet with all the strength he can muster, killing Injun Jane outright. 

In a bold strategy, Dominic decides to dump Injun Jane's body at Carl's place, relying on Carl's habitual nightly drunken oblivion to make him assume that he might have offed her himself in a drunken blackout. In a much more sensible strategy, Dominic and Danny also skip town, telling only Ketchum about their intentions.

We now enter a series of sections set in various parts of the country at (very roughly) 15-year intervals, wherein Dominic and Danny move to a new location after learning (usually via Ketchum) that Carl may be onto them, occasionally assume new names, hook up with new partners and live a regular life for a while until the whole cycle begins again. Here's a very potted summary of the first few bits (the last sections cover a more compressed timeline, for reasons we'll get to later) with, for orientation purposes, Dominic and Daniel's approximate ages in each section:

  • 1954, Coos County, New Hampshire: Dominic 30, Danny 12. Action largely as above plus a bit of back-story regarding Rosie.
  • 1967, Boston: Dominic 43, Danny 25. Dominic hooks up with Carmella, the mother of the young river driver who dies at the start of the novel, and works as a chef at her family's Italian restaurant. Danny spends some time living in Iowa City after attending the University of Iowa and comes to Boston after the break-up of his brief marriage with his two-year-old son, Joe.
  • 1983, Windham County, Vermont: Dominic 59, Danny 41. Dominic continues to work as a chef; Danny becomes a published novelist. Both live in Iowa City for a while before relocating to Vermont. Joe becomes a teenager and goes off to college.
  • 2000, Toronto: Dominic 76, Danny 58. Another city, another restaurant. Danny is now a successful novelist. Joe has died in a car accident, an occurrence that ultimately costs Danny his relationship with Charlotte, a screenwriter. It is here that that Carl, still relentlessly pursuing the pair despite his advanced age (he's in his eighties) finally catches up with them, ironically through their supposed protector Ketchum's carelessness.

Once the pivotal second round of deaths has happened (SPOILER ALERT: this includes both Dominic and Carl) there are a couple of further sections: one in which Danny and Carmella (see the Boston section above) return to Coos County and the now-abandoned site of the Twisted River logging settlement to scatter (with Ketchum's help) Dominic's ashes and to allow Carmella to see the spot where her son died, and one set in 2005 where Danny is in his winter retreat on an island in Lake Huron and about to receive an unexpected visitor from his past.

The first thing to do with a John Irving novel is to tick off which of the major repeated Irving themes it includes. Irving's Wikipedia page doesn't include the summary table any more, possibly because of repeated wrangling over its contents, but I found a version in a 2011 version of the page which includes Last Night In Twisted River. As it happens I have edited the table slightly because I don't recall any significant mention of either prostitutes or wrestling.

Among the slightly more obscure repeated themes not mentioned in the table above which feature in Last Night In Twisted River are: severing of major characters' left hands (The Fourth Hand), premature deaths of major characters' children (The World According To Garp, A Widow For One Year, The Hotel New Hampshire), blowjobs in cars with unfortunate consequences (The World According To Garp), and the innocent actions of a male child resulting in the death of an adult woman with far-reaching consequences (A Prayer For Owen Meany).

The first thing to say about Last Night In Twisted River is that I enjoyed it significantly more than the only other Irving on this list, Until I Find You. Some of the stuff I didn't like so much was due to the way the novel is structured: we get the big ratcheting shifts in timeline as in the list above, but what then happens is a lot of tracking back to fill in and catch up on the events of the preceding fifteen years or so, which basically amounts to a series of framing devices for flashbacks. It's only when we get past Dominic's death that any significant amount of the action takes place in the novel's nominal "now". This is purely a matter of stylistic preference and it won't bother everyone, but I found it slightly frustrating. It goes without saying that the central plot device of Carl's relentless pursuit of Dominic and Danny isn't even slightly convincing once the immediate aftermath of Injun Jane's death has passed, but MacGuffins gotta MacGuffin, as Alfred Hitchcock used to say, probably.

This is also the most explicitly autobiographical novel of Irving's long career, many of Danny Baciagalupo's biographical details mirroring Irving's own, and it's about writing in a way that even The World According To Garp wasn't. It also includes an Author's Note at the end where Irving describes some of the details of the novel's unusually long gestation, and takes a few veiled swipes at high-falutin' literary types who disdain the sort of big, plot-driven fiction that Irving specialises in. 

A couple of links with other entries on this list: Irving was involved, along with John Updike and others, in an entertaining literary spat with Tom Wolfe around the time of the publication of A Man In Full in 1998. Finally this pretty complimentary Guardian review of Last Night In Twisted River is by Giles Foden, whose own Turbulence featured here in 2014.

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