Fiction: "Last Night in Twisted River," by John Irving
As readers of John Irving know, terrible things happen to his characters; not just terrible things but comically far-fetched terrible things.
This is true of his latest novel, a 554-page book that sorely needed an editor. For the first 40 pages, I kept thinking, "Do I want to read about a logging camp in northern New England?" and was tempted to skim ahead when the story started picking up.
Here's the summary:
A cook and his son go on the run when something terrible happens to the cook's lover, an accident, sort of. They run instead of telling the local sheriff because he's a psychopath who thinks he reserves exclusive rights to the cook's lover, Injun Jane.
The cook, Dominic Baciagalupo, had already had a heartbreak when his wife drowned, so the drowning of the inexperienced logger in the book's opening pages is his second trauma.
The accident that makes him bundle up his young son, Daniel (you learn in reference after reference that Daniel is his "beloved" son, if you're keeping score at home) makes three terrible things in the first four chapters.
The father and son take flight to Boston, where they find the dead logger's mother to tell her the bad news. Dominic takes a job as a cook in the city's Italian North End, then falls in love with her.
Random House ($28)
Daniel eventually becomes a best-selling writer who changes his name from Baciagalupo (which means "kiss of the wolf" in Italian) to Danny Angel.
His father becomes Tony Angel, and as they move around through the years trying to keep one step ahead of the crazy sheriff, Danny has a son named Joe. A couple of almost-terrible things happen to Joe as we get to know more about Danny and how his neuroses and fears play through his novels. He is always scared that bad things will happen to the people he loves, and, of course, terrible things do.
The story would be good if Irving's narrative didn't weave around and around. The narrative has an annoying long-windedness, like that of so many people you get stuck listening to who can't leave an unnecessary detail unplumbed.
While reading about Injun Jane and her Cleveland Indians ball cap, I began to suspect that the cap would come to life for the number of times Irving refers to it, often in a kind of slow-motion focus.
Surely the hat with its grinning mascot had some significance. But no. When the event that literally turns the story happens to Jane's head instead of her headwear, I wondered what point the hat had at all, except for the Indian connection, but there is no significance to that, anyway.
There are too many unnecessary parenthetical explanations and digressions, italics for emphasis, incidents apropos of nothing and reiterations as if all the readers are expected to have serious short-term memory loss.
Then there's the matter of caring and empathy. Most of the characters don't really sink into you.
This novel is not a terrible thing that happens to readers. The best of Irving shines through in several episodes. The appearance of the larger-than-life Lady Sky and the pig roast she parachutes into are hilarious. Lady Sky harks to a gender-ambiguous character in "The World According to Garp," the book that put Irving on the map.
But with tight writing and editing, this story could have been a page-turner. What I want in a novel is either a gripping story I can't put down or one so fabulously told that I don't want to. This novel fell far short of either.
First Published November 22, 2009 12:00 am