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Last Night in Twisted River

by John Irving

About.com Rating 4.5 Star Rating


Last Night in Twisted River by John Irving
© Random House
Random House, October 2009

Once again John Irving has fluently demonstrated his considerable literary merits and superb story-telling ability. Drawing on the lives of an unforgettable cast of characters, he has given us first an entertaining history of logging in the wilds of New Hampshire in the early 1950s, a subject that is to recur throughout the novel, and a remarkable description of the emergence of a writer. Combine these elements with his characters and the reader will immediately be drawn into another not-to-be-missed novel.

Angel Pope, a young Canadian from Toronto, dies in a logging accident in the first paragraph. This death will affect and haunt the central characters for the next 50 years, including Dominic Baciagalupo, a 30-year old widower, and cook in Twisted River, a remote logging camp. He is raising Daniel, his 12-year old son, just upriver from Dead Woman Dam, the spot where Daniel's mother's drowned body was found. It is a world inhabited by grotesques. Ketchum, who is in love/lust with Six-Pack Pam (her limit when she drinks), and Injun Jane, who lives with the abusive Constable Carl (who shoots first and is insanely jealous) but loves Dominic, both help in raising Daniel. Daniel's burgeoning sexuality and the sexual angst exhibited by these characters provide a recurring theme throughout the book. It is the relationships among these five adults that lead to the accident the last night in Twisted River. A 300-pound woman is mistaken for a bear and an 8-inch frying pan figures in the accident.
That accident, the central conflict it creates, and their solution will follow Dominic and Daniel from 1954 to 2005. The story leaps forward in increments - 13, 16, 17, 1, and 4 years. In each jump forward, Irving skillfully fills in the salient events of the intervening years. In one paragraph, he can move us from the present into the past and back to the present so seamlessly there is never a question of where the characters are in time and the reader never feels a sense of disorientation. As Danny grows up to be a published writer, his novels tell us his version of stories heard earlier, stories that revolve around and evolve from that last night yet still tinged with the logging accident that set events into motion. Dominic says that "Daniel's fiction was both autobiographical and not autobiographical at the same time."

There are elements of the "autobiographical and not autobiographical" in this novel. In a recent conversation with Canada AM's Seamus O'Regan at the Toronto International Festival of Authors, he noted that this novel had haunted him for 20 years, and that many elements were lifted from his life. However, he said, do not read this as autobiography. ""What I think is more revealing is the things I write about that hasn't happened to me. Boy, do I write about them a lot."
Last Night in Twisted River is, in Irving's words, an "old-fashioned, plot-driven novel. Hawthorne and Melville are my ancestors... my models of the form." This novel demonstrates that over a career that has spanned 40 years Irving still has the ability to meet the challenge of his reputation as a brilliant story teller. Since Setting Free the Bears in 1968, he has published 11 novels, won a National Book Award for The World According to Garp, been inducted into the National Wrestling Hall of Fame, and won the Oscar for Best Adapted Screenplay for The Cider House Rules.

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