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Timber! went the plot
A father and son must flee a tough lumber town in John Irving's latest novel.

By Ron Charles
Wednesday, October 28, 2009

LAST NIGHT IN TWISTED RIVER

By John Irving

Random House 554 pp. $28

Everything that makes John Irving such a wonderful writer is on display in the opening section of his 12th novel, "Last Night in Twisted River." And everything that makes him such a maddening one is evident in the 450 rambling pages that follow. It's like signing on for a week's vacation after a great first date only to discover that now you're trapped in a small hotel room. For. Seven. Long. Days.

But, oh, this first section is a marvel, a rich and evocative story -- think of it as a $28 novella. It's about a sweet 12-year-old boy named Danny, who lives with his widowed father in a dying New Hampshire lumber town in the 1950s. Irving captures the turbulent mixture of violence and camaraderie that marks the lives of these tough men and a few even tougher women, French Canadian immigrants and Indians, anyone who wants or needs to work miles from civilization. In the first paragraph, a friendly young man slips on the logs and drowns in the tannin-dyed water, depressing these already sullen lumbermen and setting up a mystery that's pursued much later. This is, Irving wants us to know, "a world of accidents," and everybody here carries the scars.

* * *

In the ingeniously constructed story that develops, two men take care of young Danny: His father, Dominic, is a cook in Twisted River who has "the look of a man long resigned to his fate." Since losing his wife in a foolish accident when Danny was a baby, he's been a teetotaler, determined to protect his son from the vagaries of backwoods life. His best friend is one of Irving's most endearing and memorable characters, an indestructible logger named Ketchum. Marked by a host of "injuries and maimings," Ketchum is crude and tender, a rough crossbreed of Shakespeare's Falstaff and Louise Erdrich's Nanapush. An illiterate woodsman who studies novels "with a determination bordering on lunacy," he drinks and swears and shoots and whores, but he also adores Danny and regales the boy with fantastic stories, particularly tales of the boy's mother. "Everything about Ketchum was hardened and sharp-edged," Irving writes, "like a whittled-down stick -- and, as Danny had observed, 'wicked tough.' " In one of several marvelously absurd scenes, a woman asks Dominic to help get Ketchum out of her house: "He's passed out naked on the toilet," she says, "and I ain't got but one toilet."

The story moves back and forth in time, filling in details about what binds Dominic and Ketchum in their devotion to Danny. It all seems charmingly artless, guided by the flow of memory and chance, but in fact these scenes build to a classic Irving crisis: a grotesque conflation of sex and comedy and death that's as funny as it is tragic. Suddenly, Danny and his father must flee from the corrupt policeman of Twisted River, and with that decision this superb story soon breaks up and disintegrates in what must be the most disappointing wipeout of Irving's career.

Part of the problem is motivation: The small-town cop who pursues Dominic and his son across the United States and Canada makes an unconvincing Terminator. We need Cormac McCarthy's inexorable Anton Chigurh, but instead we get this limp drunk, who never seems believably frightening, just an author's excuse to keep Dominic and Danny running for many decades.

Whereas the Twisted River settlement comes to vibrant life in the opening section, the rest of the novel is scrambled across many blurry cities and restaurants and different times in a way that deadens the novel's momentum. Later in Danny's life, looking at snapshots of these various places pinned to his bulletin board, he thinks, "Thus Vermont overlapped Boston, or vice versa -- Avelliono and Mao's were apparently interchangeable." Readers will feel similarly baffled.

But most problematic of all is the book's wearisome focus on Danny's career as a world-famous novelist, like, say, John Irving. He writes fiction that is "both autobiographical and not autographical at the same time." Danny goes to Exeter. He works as an art model. He studies with Kurt Vonnegut at the University of Iowa Writers' Workshop. He publishes a couple of moderately successful novels in his 20s. He takes a teaching job at Mount Holyoke. His fourth book is an international bestseller that's made into a popular movie. He publishes another novel about abortion and then writes a screenplay version that wins an Academy Award.

If you know anything at all about Irving's life, you get the idea. There's nothing inherently wrong with such autobiographical allusions -- Irving frequently does this sort of thing -- but too often in "Last Night in Twisted River" these events serve as shorthand for real storytelling, for creating colorful places full of well-developed characters. Instead, lots of minor walk-ons clutter the stage, though fortunately only a couple of the Italians are subjected to corny dialect: "I know-a some guys -- they feex-a your problem for you."

And frankly, the irony-free fawning over Danny's talent sounds like the kind of self-pleasuring that an author should enjoy in private: "Daniel Baciagalupo was a genius-in-progress," the narrator tells us. "The kid simply has a gift for storytelling." We hear many times about the development of his remarkable skill: "Maybe this was one of those moments that made Daniel Baciagalupo become a writer." A page later: "Maybe this moment of speechlessness helped to make Daniel Baciagalupo become a writer." Maybe. A few pages later: "Daniel Baciagalupo recognized another trick that writers know." Then: "Wouldn't even the way he fell asleep somehow contribute to Danny becoming a writer?" When mothers ask such questions about their brilliant children, I pretend to get a call on my cellphone.

* * *

None of these complaints should surprise Irving, who includes here plenty of references to dimwitted book reviewers (you know how they can be!). They take Danny to task for repeating the same elements in his novels -- weird sex scenes, errant bears, missing mothers, severed hands -- all of which appear in this novel, but for gosh sakes don't say anything! Hack journalists obsess about the autobiographical details in Danny's novels, while rabid fans pester him rudely. "That was a real problem with being famous," Danny thinks, as though Irving were complaining about the help nowadays.

Ironically, the novel only soars when we read the parts that Danny has supposedly written: that Twisted River section at the beginning, a haunting chapter in the middle about a pig roast interrupted by a naked sky diver, and another one later on about Danny's son. These parts are full of captivating characters, well-polished prose and heartbreaking insights into the joys and terrors of parenthood. But "The Last Night at Twisted River" is like some kind of postmodern tragedy: Danny Baciagalupo's marvelous novel is smothered inside John Irving's dull one. If only somebody could have helped it get out and breathe.

Read an excerpt of "Last Night in Twisted River" at washingtonpost.com/bookworld. You can follow Ron Charles on Twitter at http://www.twitter.com/roncharles.

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