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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Can we sponsor a career day for literary novelists? Not to force them to abandon their IBM Selectrics or bound notebooks and become executive assistants, drill sergeants, or firemen. Rather, it’s to suggest other occupations that their characters might pursue.

It may help if I explain that this is the fifth novel in a row that I have reviewed where the main character becomes a writer. Three out of the five were highly successful works of fiction, but I’m thinking the adage “write what you know” has been thoroughly exercised for the fall of 2009.

And John Irving’s new novel, Last Night in Twisted River, is just so much better before young Daniel Baciagalupo puts pen to paper. Opening with the accidental death of a teenager at a logging camp in New Hampshire, the first section is as taut and compelling and as good as anything Irving has ever written. I thought I was heading for another “The Cider House Rules,” my personal favorite of his novels. But the full reading experience ended up being more like “A Widow for One Year,” where one outstanding section has to carry the weight of the whole book. And at 554 pages, that’s a lot to carry.

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Watching young Angel Pope slip beneath the logs in the river are the cook of the logging camp and his 12-year-old son, both of whom loved the boy.

“The cook had an aura of controlled apprehension about him, as if he routinely anticipated the most unforeseen disasters, and there was something about his son’s seriousness that reflected this; in fact, the boy looked so much like his father that several of the woodsmen had expressed their surprise that the son didn’t also walk with his dad’s pronounced limp.” How Dominic Baciagalupo acquired that limp, and the accident that killed his wife, Rosie, are his son Daniel’s favorite stories. Neither his dad nor his dad’s best friend, Ketchum, a “raging woodsman” with a loyal heart and decided opinions about everything, will talk about the night that led to the christening of Dead Woman Dam. That falls to Injun Jane, the camp’s dishwasher and Dominic’s lover.

Then another accidental death sends Daniel and Dominic running from local law enforcement, a girlfriend-beating bully of a man known as Constable Carl. In order to protect his son, Dominic goes underground in Boston’s North End.

Carl, it must be said, is no Inspector Javert. He lacks the drive and relentless implacability necessary to power a decades-long manhunt. Barring his homicidal tendencies, he’s more like the boorish former schoolmate you avoid at all costs at high school reunions – and he shows up about as often.

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.

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.

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