Last Night in Twisted River
A life on the lam leads to a career as a novelist in John Irving’s new novel.
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So, once every decade or so, Dominic and Daniel go “on the run” – with Dominic changing his name and getting a job in a new restaurant. The adult Daniel, meanwhile, has opted for a hide-in-plain-sight approach, becoming a world-famous novelist called Danny Angel, who dedicates novels to his father using his real first and last name. This is before Google made research effortless, granted; and, as Daniel points out, Carl doesn’t tend to read literary fiction. But there’s not a whole lot of tension here, and the way Daniel lives wrecks the conceit that he and his father are perpetually in danger from a madman.Skip to next paragraph
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As it happens, Carl is about as good at tracking as Daniel is at hiding, so the cat-and-mouse game lasts a good long time – long enough for Irving to meander through recent American history and a reader to lose all feeling of suspense. In the meantime, Irving’s usual preoccupations make an appearance: The bears are back, and so, unfortunately, is the incest. Boys causing the accidental deaths of women they love? Check. Shockingly sudden violence? Check. There are also enough plus-sized females – one of whom sky-dives naked – to recall William Goldman’s benediction from “The Princess Bride”: “Sleep well, and dream of large women.”
In addition to a lack of oomph fueling its central conflict, the novel has a certain tendency to wander far from the central plot, which readers will either find charming or wearying – or, in some cases, both.
While he makes a terrific kid, the adult Daniel is also problematic. Irving has given Daniel all the high points from his own career: a mentor in Kurt Vonnegut, a stint teaching at the Iowa Writers' Workshop, a breakout fourth novel, and a book about abortion that’s made into an Academy Award-winning movie. Certainly, the National Book Award- and Academy Award-winning novelist has had a career worth writing about – and it’s entirely possible that I might have enjoyed his autobiographical flourishes more, if fellow National Book Award winner Pete Dexter hadn’t just done the very same thing. (Of course, Dexter also included his failures and embarrassments.) And every time the novel pulls back to ask whether this was the moment when Daniel became a real writer or to discuss his need “to detach” to become an observer of the human condition, it jolted me right out of the story.
But this is hardly likely to deter Irving’s most devoted fans. And “Last Night in Twisted River” boasts all the hallmarks – both good and bad – of a classic Irving novel. For the rest of us, well, that first 116 pages makes a cracking good novella.
Yvonne Zipp regularly reviews fiction for the Monitor.