The advance reading copy of John Irving's new novel, Last Night in Twisted River, just arrived on my desk, and the first line goes like this:
"The young Canadian, who could not have been more than fifteen, had hesitated too long."
I will continue to read to see whether hesitating Canadians, a tautology if there ever was one, is a theme of the book, or just a one-off. But it's a great opening line: So much could happen in the paragraphs that follow. And two of the book's six sections are set in specific Canadian locations, so there appears to be a lot of local flavour here for readers on this side of the border (if that kind of thing is important to them, of course).
I've been paying attention to Irving, but rarely buying his books, ever since I read The World According to Garp the year it was published (1978). That was a violent, freaky, sex-filled novel about the unfortunate truth that family is the thing that defines us from birth to death, regardless of how ugly it can get (or how hard we try to escape it). Or at least that's how I read it at the time. I followed it up by reading his earlier novel, The Water-Method Man -- a hilarious book and among the few to ever make me laugh out loud.
But since then I've lived through an Irving dry spell. I think I tried Hotel New Hampshire but gave up because it didn't contain the unselfconscious lunacy of his previous books. It was too normal a novel, at least in the mad wake of Garp. And anyway by then I'd been sucked in by Kurt Vonnegut, who was just as funny and insane but an easier read.
Thirty years later, I'm ready to give Irving a try again, and not because of an opening line that mentions a hesitant Canadian. In spite of his fame, Irving is a real writer (14 novels in 41 years), just trying to get the story down, putting his weird life and extraordinary powers of observation into it, and making it funny and real. Bob Dylan, whom Irving quotes epigraphically in the first section of Last Night in Twisted River, was once asked how he hoped to be remembered and he answered "A good song-and-dance man." Irving strikes me as having the same honest ambition, even though, like Dylan, we all know he's way more important than that.
Last Night in Twisted River will be released Oct. 27.