In his 1996 collection Trying To Save Piggy Sneed, John Irving wrote that his friend and mentor, the late Kurt Vonnegut, once asked him if he thought there was something "intrinsically funny" about words like peek and peer, which he felt Irving used to the point of "self-conscious cuteness." Irving admitted that Vonnegut was right about the cuteness, which pervaded his first five novels to an alarming, though hilarious, degree, but which began to fade with The Cider House Rules and was largely gone by A Widow for One Year.
In Last Night in Twisted River, Irving's 12th novel, his style is anything but cute. Throughout the 1970s and '80s, the old Irving played with language the way a kitten plays with yarn, but the 21st-century Irving uses it to weave a serious yet colourful tapestry of love, guilty consciences, broken hearts and triumphant survival.
The result is a flawed but mature work by one of our most accomplished writers. Though it unfortunately lacks the gleeful abandon and glib joie de vivre of his first several books, and mercifully lacks the plodding flatness of his next few, we are consoled by the sage, musing style of a man who wishes to make some sense of the passions and fears that have held him in a death grip for nearly 70 years.
Twisted River is about the relationships among three men: Dominic Baciagalupo, an Italian-American cook with a warm heart and a bad limp; his son, Danny, who resembles his father, save for the limp; and the outdoorsy, hard-drinking Ketchum, their friend and protector. In 1954, after an inadvertent tragedy, Dominic and Danny flee the rural New Hampshire logging camp where they lived in order to escape the wrath of a bad cop named Constable Carl.
Ketchum stays behind to throw their nemesis off the trail, then spends the next five decades apprising them of Constable Carl's progress in finding them, as father and son bounce around New England, thence to the Midwest, and finally to Toronto. Amid all this, Danny gets a scholarship to Exeter, after which he goes to university and becomes a famous novelist, his career mirroring every step of Irving's own.
In fact, as much as this is a story about love and loss, it also seems to be a story about John Irving. Readers familiar with Irving's life will find the number of similarities not only striking but perhaps even perplexing, for in places it seems that he chose not to invent a fictional life for his co-protagonist but to model Danny literally after himself. It is in these passages, especially in the middle third of the book, that the story feels bogged down.
Danny's fourth novel is a big success, as was Irving's; Danny teaches at the Iowa Writers' Workshop, as did Irving; Danny writes the endings to his books first, as Irving is wont to do; and on and on. Some of Irving's fellow authors even appear, undisguised, as friends of Danny's. Vonnegut makes two cameos, and we also briefly encounter the late John Cheever, the late Raymond Carver and the poet Marvin Bell. When reality intrudes upon fiction like this, the result is often jarring, a puncturing of the pleasant illusion that is one of the purposes of reading. Readers might be forgiven for wondering at points why Irving didn't simply write another memoir, for that is partly what Twisted River seems to be.
But the rest is classic Irving, in the sense that many of the themes and symbols he has been using ever since he wrote Setting Free the Bears, his brilliant first novel of 1968, are present: bears, tragedy and casual sex, not to mention various severed body parts, wrestlers, motorcycles and irresponsible dog owners.
Though the cuteness is gone, the humour is not. As is also common Irving fare, Danny engages in a series of incestuous relationships with a couple of cousins and an aunt. Although this is tamer than the brother-on-sister action of The Hotel New Hampshire, it's still deliciously wrong, which is one of the reasons Irving's work is so much fun to read. We know now, however, that Irving roots such scenes not in childish delight at violating social taboos, but in painful memories of his own childhood abuse. It's not funny any more.
As he moves into what might be termed his late period, Irving is exploring more deeply than ever the true motivation behind a novelist's need to write. It's a question he has pursued in many of his novels, but he has opened the window onto himself wider here than ever. Danny is obsessed with his work, sparing time and energy only for the people he loves most: Dominic; Ketchum; his son, Joe, whose birth saved him from having to go to Vietnam; and various women characters who move in and out of his life like leaves on the wind. What manifestation of self-torture is this?, Dominic asks himself of one of the more disturbing scenes in one of his son's novels. He understands instinctively the real reason that his son is driven to produce. It's because Danny is haunted not just by what he did in the logging camp on Twisted River, but by what he's afraid of the world doing to him.
Irving has laid bare his own self-torture in this work. It's a mark of his storytelling skill that we somehow feel uplifted watching Danny struggle to slay his demons, even in those moments when the demons seem to be winning.
Readers familiar with Irving's oeuvre will not only appreciate this latest attempt to unearth that which is most fundamental to the human experience, but will also celebrate the fact that the author of masterful works such as The Cider House Rules and A Prayer for Owen Meany seems to be back - older, yes, but definitely wiser, a mellow vintage that is all the better for its time spent in the cellar, waiting to be uncorked.
William Kowalski is the author of Eddie's Bastard and three other novels.