I can’t remember why I broke up with John Irving. It probably happened after reading “Widow for One Year” and “The Fourth Hand”. Neither of those novels grabbed me, and I vaguely remember that I found most of the characters completely unsympathetic which usually marks the end of it for me.
My local Borders is going out of business (a fortuitous thing for a Cannonballer, no?) and while perusing the closeout sale, I spotted “Last Night In Twisted River”. John Irving is the man who wrote “A Prayer for Own Meany” (just read it!) which is reason enough to give the guy another chance, right?
“Last Night In Twisted River” is a story about three men: a father, his son, and a family friend, that spans 50 years. The father and son, Dominic and Daniel, are on the run after a terrible accident puts them at odds with the local violent and alcoholic constable. The family friend, Ketchum, remains in the town and throughout the years, keeps the father and son appraised of what is going on in the aftermath of the accident.
The plot navigates through its own twisted river: a logging settlement in New Hampshire, an ethnic neighborhood in Boston, the University of Iowa, a small college town in Vermont, Toronto and a small island in Ontario. The father, Dominic, is a cook in a logging camp and carries this vocation with him working in various restaurants as he and his son, Daniel, flee from place to place. The restaurants that Dominic works in along the way are the only constant from place to place and serve as “home” on their journey. The details about food preparation, recipes and the intertwining of their lives with the employees and owners of the restaurants become a kind of comfort zone until the constable is on their trail again and they must move on.
In all of John Irving’s novels, heartbreakingly bad things happen to good people. This novel is no exception. The characters learn to cope and move on in the face of some pretty tragic stuff. The thing that I find amazing is that Irving’s tragic accidents are always wildly bizarre and yet completely believable. How does he do that? The autobiographical aspects of the novel and recurring themes of Irving’s work abound here also: wrestling, bears, writers, Exeter, abortion, New England, etc. Irving even goes as far as referencing his penchant for using the autobiographical as fiction through Danny, who becomes a writer:
“In the media, real life was more important than fiction; those elements of a novel that were, at least, based on personal experience were of more interest to the general public than those pieces of the novel-writing process that were “merely” made up. In any work of fiction, weren’t those things that had really happened to the writer-or, perhaps, to someone the writer had intimately known-more authentic, more verifiably true, than anything that anyone could imagine?”
Amen, Irving. It is all of those “autobiographical” elements that flesh out the story. Maybe that’s why his tragic accidents are so believable. Re-entering the world of those wrestlers, writers, and grumpy New Englanders was nostalgic. If you have been missing it too, pick this one up. He was worth coming back to.