Bears. Severed limbs. Wrestlers. Doppelgängers. Infidelity and polyamory. Firearms. Tragic accidents, preventable deaths and impossible sorrow, followed by dogged survival. These motifs are more than familiar—in fact, they are legion—to any fan of John Irving’s work, and they are again to be found everywhere in his 12th novel, Last Night in Twisted River. To characterize the novel as about any of them, however, is to miss the central theme: a father’s desire to protect and save his son at any cost.
A long and sprawling (and sprawling, and sprawling) tale of the lives of a father-son combo and the many who love (or hate) them, Twisted River begins with a quote from Bob Dylan’s “Tangled Up in Blue”: “I had a job in the Great North Woods/ working as a cook for a spell/ but I never did like it all that much/ and one day the ax just fell.” These lines actually offer a tight summation of the novel’s plot, though as always, Irving pours into the gaps between the opening and closing acts endless digressions, subplots and astonishingly vivid character profiles and geographic vignettes.
The Baciagalupos are a hard-bitten cripple of a cook, Dominic, whom the reader meets in a logging camp in 1954, and a young son, Danny, who is left motherless by a tragic accident involving practically every Irving motif listed above. Watched over by a bear-like logger, Ketchum, who has his own regrets about that accident, they spend almost their entire lives together in danger—first at the hands of the rough loggers who populate the town of Twisted River in Coos County, N.H.; then because of a vengeful sheriff from the same town; then, as the novel progresses, as a consequence of the awful human proclivity for violence that seems to overtake their neighbors and acquaintances everywhere from Boston to Iowa City to Toronto and back to the woods of northern Vermont. Tragedy overtakes them time and again, and yet survival remains their focus.
In between, there are murderous but driverless cars (a wink to Stephen King?), mad dogs and their crazier owners, draft boards, cuckolded spouses, icy roads and twisted rivers, all seeking to touch these two and those they love with death. Their endless efforts to escape from them all do not mean father and son have no time for love affairs, for economic successes and failures, for new experiences of fatherhood and loss and for the ultimate development of Danny into a famous author known for his novels about Vietnam, abortion, horrific family tragedy, and “dysfunctional families; damaging sexual experiences; various losses of innocence, all leading to regret.” Starting to sound like a writer you know?
The parallels between Danny Angel (né Daniel Baciagalupo) and Irving himself (né John Wallace Blunt Jr.) are obvious on almost every page, though Irving uses the character of Danny to denounce those readers and journalists who imagine real-life experiences as the driving force behind (either of) the author’s novels. Irving has a bit of fun with this, of course, because much of this supposed fiction is less a matter of imagined parallels than of straightforward tongue-in-cheek autobiography, but we take the author at his word and still secretly wonder what on earth those bears ever did to him.
As with many of Irving’s novels, once one wrestles into the plot of Twisted River it is impossible to stop reading. When Irving is at his best, there are few writers better, and long sections of this 550-page novel are a triumph of storytelling, as if Irving is shouting to the reader: “Look, ma, no hands!” (itself not a bad summary of Irving’s fictional obsessions). His ability to prefigure and narrate experiences of personal loss or sudden tragedy can give even the most farcical of subplots an almost shocking profundity. Like The World According to Garp and A Prayer for Owen Meany before it, Twisted River includes a number of moments where the reader suddenly joins the protagonist in wondering: How do these people go on? Irving’s caveats aside, no one reads a book like this and denies the author has experienced sorrow and loss at a disturbingly intense level. And yet our fictional Danny Angel claims that “real-life stories were never whole, never complete in the way that novels could be.”
Novels, however, can be edited in a way real-life stories cannot be, and here is the primary flaw in Twisted River. Despite its many artful moments, it feels somewhat unedited. Irving has never held himself to conventional lengths (Until I Find You surpassed 800 pages), but this novel is self-indulgent in some of its subplots and characterizations, as if Irving felt the need to return to every locale and every theme he has ever explored. Many of these side trips and backtracks contribute little to the overall story. In fact, they are distractions.
Twisted River also slowly turns into an exercise in meta-fiction as it meanders to its close, and we see up close the protagonist fighting the same political and artistic battles as Irving himself as he writes his own fiction. By the final pages (and this is no spoiler) Danny Angel is writing the same lines John Irving wrote in the initial pages of Twisted River. So Danny is not John, but Danny is John, and now Danny will create a new protagonist, but it won’t be Danny. In the end one is left with a series of literary nesting dolls, one inside another. Unfortunately, like nesting dolls themselves, this is cute but not much more, and it belabors an obvious point made elsewhere at length in the novel.
Where does this leave the reader? At worst, a bit disappointed in the ultimate payoff; more likely, ignoring or skimming the cute and the extraneous and loving the profound and the vivid and true. There is plenty of all of them to experience before “the ax just falls.”