Last Night in Twisted River Ran­dom House, 554 pages by John Irv­ing,

Pasatiempo - - In Other Words -

In John Irv­ing’s lat­est novel, New Hamp­shire log­ging-camp cook Do­minic Ba­ci­a­galupo takes his 12-year-old son Daniel on the run af­ter a vi­o­lent ac­ci­dent ren­ders them fugi­tives from a so­cio­pathic law­man. At first this rugged, off-the-grid con­ceit feels new for Irv­ing, whose 11 pre­vi­ous nov­els have had more gen­teel set­tings, but he em­ploys so many fa­mil­iar ref­er­ences and ideas that, to this long­time Irv­ing reader, it feels al­most as if the au­thor is play­ing a game by test­ing my abil­ity to re­main in­side this novel.

Irv­ing is known for re­vis­it­ing what he calls his “ob­ses­sions” from book to book— bears, wrestling, prep school, 19th-cen­tury lit­er­a­ture — and his “great­est fears”— vi­o­lent ac­ci­dents, sex­ual trauma, the death of a par­ent or child. Through­out his ca­reer, he has grap­pled with some of so­ci­ety’s most con­tentious top­ics, in­clud­ing war and pa­tri­o­tism, rape, abor­tion, child abuse, and re­li­gion. Irv­ing does not shy away from emo­tion or even melo­drama, and though his pen­chant for ham­mer­ing a theme bor­ders on com­pul­sive, as long as he con­tin­ues to grow as a writer— to ex­plore his char­ac­ters more deeply, to find new ways of get­ting at the truth of ex­pe­ri­ence while con­tin­u­ing to weave his epic-length tales— as a reader, I’ll go along for the ride. Un­for­tu­nately, Irv­ing has not been grow­ing as a writer lately (see The Fourth Hand and Un­til I Find You), and Last Night in Twisted River feels like a cry for help.

The tale is os­ten­si­bly nar­rated by the om­ni­scient Mr. Irv­ing, but once Daniel reaches high school and be­gins to write sto­ries, it be­comes clear that Danny An­gel— Daniel’s fu­ture nov­el­ist self— is telling the story. All events af­ter this point in the book are fil­tered through his per­cep­tion, but this sub­tle shift in point of view dis­tances the reader from the au­then­tic­ity of au­tho­rial in­sight. At one point, we learn about the bril­liant, writerly imagination of young Daniel from what ini­tially seems to be the per­spec­tive of a teacher/men­tor who gets Daniel into Ex­eter on a schol­ar­ship. But later it is re­vealed that Danny has been imag­in­ing his men­tor’s thoughts from some in­de­ter­mi­nate point in the fu­ture. We also learn that a strip-club en­counter be­tween the not-yet-a-writer Daniel and this teacher be­comes the ba­sis for Danny An­gel’s first novel, but we never ac­tu­ally see the en­counter, just as Irv­ing doesn’t let us wit­ness other piv­otal scenes ex­cept through Danny’s writerly dis­tance.

Danny An­gel’s writ­ing life is a sig­nif­i­cant dis­trac­tion from what could oth­er­wise be a good book. Danny’s ca­reer is Irv­ing’s— in in­ter­views for the book, Irv­ing has not been shy about dis­cussing this par­al­lel— and there are long di­gres­sions about crit­i­cal re­sponse to the fic­tional au­thor’s work, as well as multi-page de­fenses of Irv­ing’s own prose style and tics, such as his af­fec­tion for semi­colons and long sen­tences. He also claims that read­ers are ei­ther overly con­cerned or not con­cerned enough with whether his writ­ing is au­to­bi­o­graph­i­cal. As a reader, I as­sume that writ­ers are in­spired by their lives in any num­ber of ways, but what mat­ters to me is what is on the page, how they trans­form ex­pe­ri­ence from some­thing as mun­dane as “real life” into art.

Mem­o­rable char­ac­ters abound in Twisted River: Ketchum, the con­trar­ian, wild-man log­ger; Kate, Danny’s danger­ous, li­bidi­nous ex-wife; Ah Gou and Xiao Dee, broth­ers who own a Chi­nese restau­rant in Iowa; Lady Sky, Carmella, In­jun Jane, Six Pack Sam, and the many other women who en­ter and exit the Ba­ci­a­galu­pos’ lives; and even Do­minic him­self, who, though ba­si­cally ten­sion­less as a per­son, is the moral cen­ter of the novel. The least formed char­ac­ter is the fa­mous au­thor Danny An­gel. He ex­pe­ri­ences great loss and up­heaval at ev­ery turn, but we are rarely there with him when it hap­pens— or if we are, Irv­ing in­jects an au­tho­rial aside that un­der­cuts the dra­matic mo­ment. We know only that Danny will, in­vari­ably, turn his trauma into fic­tion and then bris­tle when crit­ics ask him if he writes from his own life. But crit­i­cal feed­back means lit­tle to Danny An­gel, as I sus­pect it means lit­tle to Irv­ing, so I don’t un­der­stand why he spends an en­tire book pro­vok­ing an ar­gu­ment he doesn’t re­ally care about and dis­tract­ing his read­ers from the story’s im­por­tant themes— the bonds be­tween a fa­ther and son, find­ing fam­ily in un­likely but much needed places, and the life­long ram­i­fi­ca­tions of choices we make be­fore we are old enough to know bet­ter.

Irv­ing needs to choose his true au­di­ence: read­ers or re­view­ers. If it is the lat­ter, where does he go from here? If it is the for­mer, then I im­plore you, Mr. Irv­ing — come back to us. You are one of Amer­ica’s great­est con­tem­po­rary nov­el­ists, but we don’t want games and fin­ger tricks; we want the kinds of sto­ries that made us love you in the first place.

— Jen­nifer Levin

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