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Book Review: Last Night in Twisted River by John Irving

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I approached reading John Irving's latest release Last Night in Twisted River with some trepidation. Why? Well, I am an enormous fan of Irving but his last few books have not blown me away, as did his earlier books, such as A Prayer for Owen Meany, A Widow For One Year, Cider House Rules, and of course, his career-making The World According to Garp. John Irving books are always big, heavy books (well, unless it's an e-book — but you get my point) — you know (hope?) you're in for a long yet ultimately satisfying read. I had purposely avoided reading any reviews of Twisted River, so I would not go into my reading experience with any sort of expectation or bias. So…what did I think?

Overall, it was good, not great. Within the first few pages, when I didn't immediately get completely absorbed, I thought "uh-oh." Not coming from New Hampshire or knowing anything about the old-time logging industry (and to be honest, not really caring about it all that much), I had a hard time staying that interested in his prolonged exposition on a geography and process I was apathetic about. Yet, being the skilled master that he is, Irving drew me in with the story, and his incredibly detailed character portrayals — that's where his strength as an author lies. (How many of you still remember T.S. Garp? See?) Well, Daniel Baciagalupo, ne Danny Angel, will stay with you for awhile, too. As will his father, Dominic, and their grizzled logger friend, Ketchum.

Typical Irving thematic elements are all here: bears, wrestling, freak accidents, the older woman/younger man relationship, fear of losing a child, the father/son relationship, hands — the list goes on. What is interesting in this novel is how Irving gives the writer Danny Angel a similar career trajectory that Irving himself experienced — prep school (Exeter), then the Iowa Writers Workshop, an amazing fourth novel that makes him an international sensation, a difficult experience with Hollywood, a celebrated "abortion novel." I found these little "wink wink" elements to be an interesting form of insight into Irving himself, though I did feel they distracted me somewhat as a reader from the story of the main protagonist, Danny. I kept thinking how much of this is "The John Irving Story?" and I therefore had a hard time remaining completely immersed in the novel overall.

What is the story about? Without giving away any major plotlines, I can summarize it (as best as one can summarize an Irving novel) as thus: Danny and his father (a widower and cook) must leave their logging town of Twisted River, New Hampshire, after their involvement in an unexpectedly tragic event. On the run for the better part of the novel, Danny and his father make their way in the world, through schooling, restaurants, and college towns in Vermont, Iowa, and Toronto. Ketchum, their life-hardened logging friend, stays back in Twisted River, but remains in frequent contact with them throughout their various trials and tribulations of life (Danny becomes a father himself), until the inevitable "Irving-esque" denouement and its aftermath.

When a novel is really and truly great, for me, I find daily activities intrusive. I can't wait to get back to that book, where I can tune out the world and become entrenched with the story and characters once again. Twisted River unfortunately did not do that for me. I found myself slogging through pages (and pages) of detailed descriptions of Canadian territories, the logging process, etc., until I finally just limped painfully toward the end.

However, if you have a particular interest in logging (see, even you're already sick of it) and the Canadian territories, or say, how to kill yourself by cutting off your hand (Irving does love to mix his gratuitous violence with the civilized), then perhaps you will be more stimulated by this novel than I. I liked the characters well enough and empathized with them, don't get me wrong; I found particular delight when  about Danny shared his "writing process" — as a writer, that was actually quite fascinating for me. As a foodie, I found the descriptions of all those amazing Italian and Chinese dishes (Danny's father is a cook) mouthwatering and brilliant. Suggestion: don't read this book on an empty stomach. Yet overall, I just didn't feel that page-turning, "what's going to happen next?"  feeling of being fully engaged by this novel.

If this is your introduction to John Irving, I suggest you step back into his fabulous library of earlier works, like those mentioned above. (I even enjoyed The Hotel New Hampshire quite enormously as well.) Garp is on my all-time favorite short list, so that tells you how much I love that book — start there and you too will become a lifelong Irving fan. There aren't that many writers, particularly male writers, who treat women with the respect and strength that Irving typically does (though that could be debated as well, I suppose), and in Twisted River there are definitely big, strong women.

Which is probably why, after all, I still enjoyed Twisted River and would recommend it, with the caveat that it may take you awhile to work your way through from Danny's childhood to his life as an older man. Like most Irving novels, this one has the archetypal young man on a journey, one that's full of multiple dangerous twists and disastrous turns, with occasional glimmers of joy thrown in. It's a circuitous route (thus the title, perhaps?) but one he takes you on skillfully, in the end.

Twisted River is by no means a quick, light read — but it is, ultimately, a good one. Just not a great one.

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