My Goodreads profile told me that I was reading Last Night in Twisted River by John Irving for the 3rd time, but that’s not accurate. I read about a third of it in 2010 when it was a new book and gave up. But a friend later recommended it and I was able to grab it on Audible so I thought I would restart it in that format. I listened to about another third in 2017 and then stopped again. It’s not a good sign when I can’t finish an audiobook.
Last Night in Twisted River received mixed reviews, but I don’t read a book or not read a book because of a review. In late 2019, I put the book on my To-Do list to finish. I went back an hour in the audiobook from where I had left off in 2017 and decided to listen in short sections while I did my walks. That was October 2019. I finished listening to it this month. I have spent ten years in Twisted River.
Last Night in Twisted River is Irving’s 12th novel. It covers a half-century including the President George W. Bush years and the 9/11 attack.
It’s difficult to summarize his novels because a lot happens. It’s about a cook and his son who are on the run. That son becomes a famous writer and gives Irving a lot of opportunities to talk about writing and the writing life.
It starts in 1954 in the small logging settlement of Twisted River on the Androscoggin River in New Hampshire. A young logger has drowned on the river when he fell under floating logs. Dominic Baciagalupo is the camp’s cook who lives above the kitchen with his 12-year-old son, Daniel. We find out that the river also took Dominic’s wife, Rosie, 10 years earlier when Dominic, Rosie and a friend, Ketchum, were drunk dancing on the frozen river, and she fell through.
The accidents that put the novel into motion aren’t over. “Injun Jane”, the kitchen’s dishwasher and girlfriend of Constable Carl, is having an affair with Dominic. One night, Daniel sees the pair having sex and mistakes Jane for a bear attacking his father and Daniel kills her with a cast-iron skillet.
The father and son stash the body at passed-out-drunk Carl’s house thinking he may wake up and assume he killed her (He often beat her up.) and confiding only in Ketchum the pair runs from Twisted River. Their running from Carl and their fear that he will find them and kill them in revenge make up most of the novel as they move to Boston, to Vermont, and Toronto. Carl is really in pursuit and he is also always imagined to be nearby. Ketchum takes up their protection as a mission in life.
The young Daniel is the protagonist but coming of age is very difficult for characters in Irving novels. They lose things, including people they love. They have scars physical and mental. Irving fans see and expect to see certain things repeating in his novels – from bears and odd dogs to loved ones dying in strange ways, people losing parts of their body and the death of children, For example, in Twisted River someone dies in a car accident while driving and receiving oral sex which echoes a similar scene in Garp.
In interviews, John Irving said that he started thinking about the novel in 1986 but it took 20 years to form. (So maybe my 10-year read makes sense?)
Irving likes to start his novels with the last sentence and work his way back. That’s how Daniel, who uses the pseudonym Daniel Angel for most of his career, also writes his novels. Irving says that he found the last sentence for this novel when in 2005 he heard Bob Dylan singing “Tangled Up in Blue” and this lyric caught him:
I had a job in the great north woods
Working as a cook for a spell
But I never did like it all that much
And one day the ax just fell
Irving published his first novel, Setting Free the Bears, in 1968. He has been nominated for a National Book Award three times and he won for the brilliant The World According to Garp which is one of my all-time favorite novels.
Garp was the first of his novels I read. After that, I worked my way backward and read his earlier novels: Setting Free the Bears (1968), The Water-Method Man (1972) and The 158-Pound Marriage (1974) all of which show themes that are elevated in Garp.
My wife and I read each of those books at the same time and would have our own book club discussions about them. It became our habit to do that with each of his novels and we did the same thing with John Updike’s novels. The two Johns were sometimes confused by readers, which makes no sense to me as their styles are very different.
I loved the film of Garp (I think Irving was not as big of a fan of it) and that surprised me because is a big book that didn’t seem like it could be filmed. It would be perfect for a mini-series and I once read that Irving was working on it for HBO. But the film, with the wonderful Robin Williams and Glenn Close as his mother and the fabulous John Lithgow, works very well.
He followed up this big best-seller with three very good novels: The Hotel New Hampshire (1981) and then The Cider House Rules (1985), and A Prayer for Owen Meany (1989).
Five of his novels have film versions: Garp, Hotel New Hampshire, The Cider House Rules (with a screenplay by Irving), A Prayer for Owen Meany (with a title change to Simon Birch at Irving’s request because he did not believe that his novel could successfully be made into a film – and he was corect) and The Door in the Floor (based only on the first third of his 1998 novel A Widow for One Year.)
I am definitely an Irving fan and had been reading each book as it was published, but he lost me in the 1990s. Though my wie and I read A Son of the Circus (1994), A Widow for One Year (1998), and The Fourth Hand (2001), they didn’t grab us as the earlier books had done.
I never read Until I Find You (2005), but my wife bought Last Night in Twisted River (2009) and I gave it a try. You know how that went.
Since then, Irving published In One Person (2012) and Avenue of Mysteries (2015) and he has a new novel, Darkness As a Bride due out this fall. I feel like I should return to one of the three unread Irving novels and start again, or wait for the new one and start fresh and work my way back again.
But the next book on my started-but-long-unfinished list will be Infinite Jest. Yeah, I have the audiobook.