Last Night in Twisted River
Random House, 576 pp, $18.20
Oct., 27 2009
Chapter OneUnder the Logs
The young canadian, who could not have been more than fifteen, had hesitated too long. For a frozen moment, his feet had stopped moving on the floating logs in the basin above the river bend; he'd slipped entirely underwater before anyone could grab his outstretched hand. One of the loggers had reached for the youth's long hair-the older man's fingers groped around in the frigid water, which was thick, almost soupy, with sloughed-off slabs of bark. Then two logs collided hard on the would-be rescuer's arm, breaking his wrist. The carpet of moving logs had completely closed over the young Canadian, who never surfaced; not even a hand or one of his boots broke out of the brown water.
Out on a logjam, once the key log was pried loose, the river drivers had to move quickly and continually; if they paused for even a second or two, they would be pitched into the torrent. In a river drive, death among moving logs could occur from a crushing injury, before you had a chance to drown-but drowning was more common.
From the riverbank, where the cook and his twelve-year-old son could hear the cursing of the logger whose wrist had been broken, it was immediately apparent that someone was in more serious trouble than the would-be rescuer, who'd freed his injured arm and had managed to regain his footing on the flowing logs. His fellow river drivers ignored him; they moved with small, rapid steps toward shore, calling out the lost boy's name. The loggers ceaselessly prodded with their pike poles, directing the floating logs ahead of them. The rivermen were, for the most part, picking the safest way ashore, but to the cook's hopeful son it seemed that they might have been trying to create a gap of sufficient width for the young Canadian to emerge. In truth, there were now only intermittent gaps between the logs. The boy who'd told them his name was "Angel Pope, from Toronto," was that quickly gone.
"Is it Angel?" the twelve-year-old asked his father. This boy, with his dark-brown eyes and intensely serious expression, could have been mistaken for Angel's younger brother, but there was no mistaking the family resemblance that the twelve-year-old bore to his ever-watchful father. The cook had an aura of controlled apprehension about him, as if he routinely anticipated the most unforeseen disasters, and there was something about his son's seriousness that reflected this; in fact, the boy looked so much like his father that several of the woodsmen had expressed their surprise that the son didn't also walk with his dad's pronounced limp.
The cook knew too well that indeed it was the young Canadian who had fallen under the logs. It was the cook who'd warned the loggers that Angel was too green for the river drivers' work; the youth should not have been trying to free a logjam. But probably the boy had been eager to please, and maybe the rivermen hadn't noticed him at first.
In the cook's opinion, Angel Pope had also been too green (and too clumsy) to be working in the vicinity of the main blade in a sawmill. That was strictly the sawyer's territory-a highly skilled position in the mills. The planer operator was a relatively skilled position, too, though not particularly dangerous.
The more dangerous and less skilled positions included working on the log deck, where logs were rolled into the mill and onto the saw carriage, or unloading logs from the trucks. Before the advent of mechanical loaders, the logs were unloaded by releasing trip bunks on the sides of the trucks-this allowed an entire load to roll off a truck at once. But the trip bunks sometimes failed to release; the men were occasionally caught under a cascade of logs while they were trying to free a bunk.
As far as the cook was concerned, Angel shouldn't have been in any position that put the boy in close proximity to moving logs. But the lumberjacks had been as fond of the young Canadian as the cook and his son had been, and Angel had said he was bored working in the kitchen. The youth had wanted more physical labor, and he liked the outdoors.
The repeated thunk-thunk of the pike poles, poking the logs, was briefly interrupted by the shouts of the rivermen who had spotted Angel's pike pole-more than fifty yards from where the boy had vanished. The fifteen-foot pole was floating free of the log drive, out where the river currents had carried it away from the logs.
The cook could see that the river driver with the broken wrist had come ashore, carrying his pike pole in his good hand. First by the familiarity of his cursing, and only secondarily by the logger's matted hair and tangled beard, did the cook realize that the injured man was Ketchum-no neophyte to the treachery of a log drive.
It was April-not long after the last snowmelt and the start of mud season-but the ice had only recently broken up in the river basin, the first logs falling through the ice upstream of the basin, on the Dummer ponds. The river was ice- cold and swollen, and many of the lumberjacks had heavy beards and long hair, which would afford them some scant protection from the blackflies in mid-May.
Ketchum lay on his back on the riverbank like a beached bear. The moving mass of logs flowed past him. It appeared as if the log drive were a life raft, and the loggers who were still out on the river seemed like castaways at sea-except that the sea, from one moment to the next, turned from greenish brown to bluish black. The water in Twisted River was richly dyed with tannins.
"Shit, Angel!" Ketchum shouted from his back. "I said, 'Move your feet, Angel. You have to keep moving your feet!' Oh, shit."
The vast expanse of logs had been no life raft for Angel, who'd surely drowned or been crushed to death in the basin above the river bend, although the lumberjacks (Ketchum among them) would follow the log drive at least to where Twisted River poured into the Pontook Reservoir at Dead Woman Dam. The Pontook Dam on the Androscoggin River had created the reservoir; once the logs were let loose in the Androscoggin, they would next encounter the sorting gaps outside Milan. In Berlin, the Androscoggin dropped two hundred feet in three miles; two paper mills appeared to divide the river at the sorting gaps in Berlin. It was not inconceivable to imagine that young Angel Pope, from Toronto, was on his way there. Come nightfall, the cook and his son were still attempting to salvage leftovers, for tomorrow's meals, from the scores of untouched dinners in the small settlement's dining lodge-the cookhouse in the so-called town of Twisted River, which was barely larger and only a little less transient than a logging camp. Not long ago, the only dining lodge on a river drive hadn't been a lodge at all. There once was a traveling kitchen that had been permanently built onto a truck body, and an adjacent truck on which a modular dining hall could be taken down and reassembled-this was when the trucks used to perpetually move camp to another site on Twisted River, wherever the loggers were working next.
In those days, except on the weekends, the rivermen rarely went back to the town of Twisted River to eat or sleep. The camp cook had often cooked in a tent. Everything had to be completely portable; even the sleeping shelters were built onto truck bodies.
Now nobody knew what would become of the less-than-thriving town of Twisted River, which was situated partway between the river basin and the Dummer ponds. The sawmill workers and their families lived there, and the logging company maintained bunkhouses for the more transient woodsmen, who included not only the French Canadian itinerants but most of the river drivers and the other loggers. The company also maintained a better equipped kitchen, an actual dining lodge-the aforementioned cookhouse-for the cook and his son. But for how much longer? Not even the owner of the logging company knew.
The lumber industry was in transition; it would one day be possible for every worker in the logging business to work from home. The logging camps (and even the slightly less marginal settlements like Twisted River) were dying. The wanigans themselves were disappearing; those curious shelters for sleeping and eating and storing equipment had not only been mounted on trucks, on wheels, or on crawler tracks, but they were often attached to rafts or boats.
The Indian dishwasher-she worked for the cook-had long ago told the cook's young son that wanigan was from an Abenaki word, leading the boy to wonder if the dishwasher herself was from the Abenaki tribe. Perhaps she just happened to know the origin of the word, or she'd merely claimed to know it. (The cook's son went to school with an Indian boy who'd told him that wanigan was of Algon - quian origin.)
While it lasted, the work during a river drive was from dawn till dark. It was the protocol in a logging operation to feed the men four times a day. In the past, when the wanigans couldn't get close to a river site, the two midday meals had been trekked to the drivers. The first and last meal were served in the base camp-nowadays, in the dining lodge. But out of their affection for Angel, tonight many of the loggers had missed their last meal in the cookhouse. They'd spent the evening following the log drive, until the darkness had driven them away-not only the darkness, but also the men's growing awareness that none of them knew if Dead Woman Dam was open. From the basin below the town of Twisted River, the logs-probably with Angel among them-might already have flowed into the Pontook Reservoir, but not if Dead Woman Dam was closed. And if the Pontook Dam and Dead Woman were open, the body of the young Canadian would be headed pell-mell down the Androscoggin. No one knew better than Ketchum that there would likely be no finding Angel there.
The cook could tell when the river drivers had stopped searching-from the kitchen's screen door, he could hear them leaning their pike poles against the cookhouse. A few of the tired searchers found their way to the dining lodge after dark; the cook didn't have the heart to turn them away. The hired help had all gone home-everyone but the Indian dishwasher, who stayed late most nights. The cook, whose difficult name was Dominic Baciagalupo-or "Cookie," as the lumberjacks routinely called him-made the men a late supper, which his twelve-year-old son served.
"Where's Ketchum?" the boy asked his dad.
"He's probably getting his arm fixed," the cook replied.
"I'll bet he's hungry," the twelve-year-old said, "but Ketchum is wicked tough."
"He's impressively tough for a drinking man," Dominic agreed, but he was thinking that maybe Ketchum wasn't tough enough for this. Losing Angel Pope might be hardest on Ketchum, the cook thought, because the veteran logger had taken the young Canadian under his wing. He'd looked after the boy, or he had tried to.
Ketchum had the blackest hair and beard-the charred-black color of charcoal, blacker than a black bear's fur. He'd been married young-and more than once. He was estranged from his children, who had grown up and gone their own ways. Ketchum lived yearround in one of the bunkhouses, or in any of several run-down hostelries, if not in a wanigan of his own devising-namely, in the back of his pickup truck, where he had come close to freezing to death on those winter nights when he'd passed out, dead drunk. Yet Ketchum had kept Angel away from alcohol, and he'd kept not a few of the older women at the so-called dance hall away from the young Canadian, too.
"You're too young, Angel," the cook had heard Ketchum tell the youth. "Besides, you can catch things from those ladies."
Ketchum would know, the cook had thought. Dominic knew that Ketchum had done more damage to himself than breaking his wrist in a river drive.
The steady hiss and intermittent flickering of the pilot lights on the gas stove in the cookhouse kitchen-an old Garland with two ovens and eight burners, and a flame-blackened broiler above-seemed perfectly in keeping with the lamentations of the loggers over their late supper. They had been charmed by the lost boy, whom they'd adopted as they would a stray pet. The cook had been charmed, too. Perhaps he saw in the unusually cheerful teenager some future incarnation of his twelve-year-old son-for Angel had a welcoming expression and a sincere curiosity, and he exhibited none of the withdrawn sullenness that appeared to afflict the few young men his age in a rough and rudimentary place like Twisted River. This was all the more remarkable because the youth had told them that he'd recently run away from home.
"You're Italian, aren't you?" Dominic Baciagalupo had asked the boy.
"I'm not from Italy, I don't speak Italian-you're not much of an Italian if you come from Toronto," Angel had answered.
The cook had held his tongue. Dominic knew a little about Boston Italians; some of them seemed to have issues regarding how Italian they were. And the cook knew that Angel, in the old country, might have been an Angelo. (When Dominic had been a little boy, his mother had called him Angelù-in her Sicilian accent, this sounded like an-geh-LOO.)
But after the accident, nothing with Angel Pope's written name could be found; among the boy's few belongings, not a single book or letter identified him. If he'd had any identification, it had gone into the river basin with him-probably in the pocket of his dungarees-and if they never located the body, there would be no way to inform Angel's family, or whoever the boy had run away from.
Legally or not, and with or without proper papers, Angel Pope had made his way across the Canadian border to New Hampshire. Not the way it was usually done, either-Angel hadn't come from Quebec. He'd made a point of arriving from Ontario-he was not a French Canadian. The cook hadn't once heard Angel speak a word of French or Italian, and the French Canadians at the camp had wanted nothing to do with the runaway boy-apparently, they didn't like English Canadians. Angel, for his part, kept his distance from the French; he didn't appear to like the Québécois any better than they liked him. Dominic had respected the boy's privacy; now the cook wished he knew more about Angel Pope, and where he'd come from. Angel had been a good-natured and fair-minded companion for the cook's twelve-year-old son, Daniel-or Danny, as the loggers and the saw-mill men called the boy.
Almost every male of working age in Twisted River knew the cook and his son-some women, too. Dominic had needed to know a number of women-mainly, to help him look after his son-for the cook had lost his wife, Danny's young mother, a long-seeming decade ago. Dominic Baciagalupo believed that Angel Pope had had some experience with kitchen work, which the boy had done awkwardly but uncomplainingly, and with an economy of movement that must have been born of familiarity-despite his professed boredom with cooking-related chores, and his penchant for cutting himself on the cutting board.
Moreover, the young Canadian was a reader; he'd borrowed many books that had belonged to Dominic's late wife, and he often read aloud to Daniel. It was Ketchum's opinion that Angel had read Robert Louis Stevenson to young Dan "to excess"-not only Kidnapped and Treasure Island but his unfinished deathbed novel, St. Ives, which Ketchum said should have died with the author. At the time of the accident on the river, Angel had been reading The Wrecker to Danny.
(Ketchum had not yet weighed in with his opinion of that novel.) Well, whatever Angel Pope's background had been, he'd had some schooling, clearly-more than most of the French Canadian woodsmen the cook had known. (More than most of the sawmill workers and the local woodsmen, too.)
"Why did Angel have to die?" Danny asked his dad. The twelve-year-old was helping his father wipe down the dining tables after the late-arriving loggers had gone off to bed, or perhaps to drink. And although she often kept herself busy in the cookhouse quite late into the night, at least well past Danny's bedtime, the Indian dishwasher had finished with her chores; by now, she'd driven her truck back to town. "Angel didn't have to die, Daniel-it was an avoidable accident." The cook's vocabulary often made reference to avoidable accidents, and his twelve-year-old son was overfamiliar with his father's grim and fatalistic thoughts on human fallibility-the recklessness of youth, in particular. "He was too green to be out on a river drive," the cook said, as if that were all there was to it.
Danny Baciagalupo knew his dad's opinion of all the things Angel, or any boy that age, was too green to do. The cook also would have wanted to keep Angel far away from a peavey. (The peavey's most important feature was the hinged hook that made it possible to roll a heavy log by hand.)
Excerpted from htmlLast Night in Twisted River by John Irving Copyright © 2009 by John Irving Excerpted by permission.
All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher. Excerpts are provided by Dial-A-Book Inc. solely for the personal use of visitors to this web site.