Last Night in Twisted River by John Irving

July 5, 2011

Plot summary (from the publisher): In 1954, in the cookhouse of a logging and sawmill settlement in northern New Hampshire, an anxious twelve-year-old boy mistakes the local constable’s girlfriend for a bear. Both the twelve-year-old and his father become fugitives, forced to run from Coos County–to Boston, to southern Vermont, to Toronto–pursued by the implacable constable. Their lone protector is a fiercely libertarian logger, once a river driver, who befriends them.

In a story spanning five decades, Last Night in Twisted River –- John Irving’s twelfth novel -– depicts the recent half-century in the United States as “a living replica of Coos County, where lethal hatreds were generally permitted to run their course.” From the novel’s taut opening sentence -– “The young Canadian, who could not have been more than fifteen, had hesitated too long” -– to its elegiac final chapter, Last Night in Twisted River is written with the historical authenticity and emotional authority of The Cider House Rules and A Prayer for Owen Meany. It is also as violent and disturbing a story as John Irving’s breakthrough bestseller, The World According to Garp.

What further distinguishes Last Night in Twisted River is the author’s unmistakable voice –- the inimitable voice of an accomplished storyteller. Near the end of this moving novel, John Irving writes: “We don’t always have a choice how we get to know one another. Sometimes, people fall into our lives cleanly–as if out of the sky, or as if there were a direct flight from Heaven to Earth–the same sudden way we lose people, who once seemed they would always be part of our lives.”

Warning: Spoilers Below!

Liked:

  • I liked how the author melded so much of his real life into Danny’s. This was the first John Irving book I ever read and even without knowing anything at all about his personal life, I could just tell that the details he attributed to Danny’s education and writing style were straight from Irving’s own experiences. If I liked this aspect of the book without even knowing anything about Irving, I can only imagine how his true fans must have reacted.
  • I kind of liked that this was the book Danny was writing. I had it figured out well before the final reveal, but still, the conceit was pretty cool.
  • The Ketchum character was fairly interesting. I didn’t like everything about him, but I definitely paid more attention to the story whenever he was around.
  • I paid particular attention to what Danny was going through when he lost Joe. I can’t even fathom what it would be like to deal with the death of an only child, and found Danny’s reaction heartbreaking. I just wish more time had been spent on this part.

Disliked:

  • Danny was probably the most boring character out of the entire bunch. I don’t understand the choice of having the story be mostly about him. Sure, plenty of other books have rather boring narrators, but in those, the main plot is usually about the truly interesting character. For example, Nick Carraway talks about the far more fascinating Jay Gatsby and Fred tells about the inimitable Holly Golightly. Why couldn’t Danny have been the vehicle to tell us an engrossing story about Ketchum?
  • There were lots and lots of pointless scenes throughout the book. Seriously, this was a tough novel to get through because of all the extraneous stuff and all the sidetracking that Irving did. There were several places where I had to force myself to keep going instead of putting the book aside for good.
  • Ugh, more political ranting from an author. Was it really necessary to go into the 9/11 thing and spend so many pages bashing Bush? How did that even fit in with the rest of the book? Would the story have changed in any significant way if this part had been left out? No. So why risk alienating half of your readers???
  • The whole idea of running away from Cowboy Carl seemed utterly ridiculous to me. Was this meant to be funny? As I said, this was my first Irving, so maybe he always introduces ludicrous plot points like this one. Seriously? An 86-year-old former law enforcement officer stalks Danny and Dominic for half a century? And then kills Dominic in cold blood? How dumb. Plus, if Cowboy Carl really was a threat, then why didn’t Danny and his father move all the way across the country (as was suggested many times)? It made no sense at all.
  • The Lady Sky thing was just…just… wow, I don’t even have the words to express how stupid it was that Danny remembered and hooked up with her 40 years later. Yes, if they were college sweethearts or something, a reunion 40 years later would seem plausible. But he met her for what, an hour, after she skydived into a pigpen??? Good lord.
  • I seriously despised the graphic details of Danny beating the two dogs with squash racquets. I mean, he hit them on their heads “as hard as he could” and even shoved one of the sawed-off racquets down a dog’s throat. And then he came back to deliberately kill one of the dogs. WTF??? Just run down a different road, asshole.
  • All the restaurant stuff involving menus and recipes seemed incredibly pointless as well. Again, I’m left to wonder why editors don’t insist on using the ‘delete’ key with some of these authors. Just because someone is firmly established and has a reputation as good as Irving’s doesn’t mean they are completely infallible in their writing choices. I just wish editors would do their jobs!

Rating:

I think I made a mistake in choosing Last Night in Twisted River as my first John Irving book. I’ve heard much better things about The Cider House Rules and A Prayer for Owen Meany, so perhaps I should have started there. As for Twisted River, the scope of the novel was just far too ambitious and the execution was too poor to result in a good product. I give the book 2 stars out of 5.

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