Dec 5, 2009

Monkey droppings - Last Night in Twisted River by John Irving: "Danny knew how stories were marvels."

Darwin the monkeyToday, the monkey travels to the past, to an author long loved yet somehow misplaced as the years roll by.

Oh, cruel march of time! Why must you trudge so relentlessly onward? Damn you, sir!

Last Night in Twisted River
by John Irving
As for the river, it just kept moving, as rivers do - as rivers do. Under the logs, the body of the young Canadian moved with the river, which jostled him to and fro - to and fro. If, at this moment in time, Twisted River also appeared restless, even impatient, maybe the river itself wanted the boy's body to move on, too - move on, too.
John Irving has a lifetime pass with me, for the following reason:

In 1982, the movie version of Irving's The World According to Garp was released. I was a lad of twelve, and far too young and impressionable to be allowed to watch such an R-rated film. However, I was a huge Robin Williams/Mork and Mindy fan - still am, really; why, Robin? Why Old Dogs? WHY? - and would find another way to avail myself of what was sure to be a laugh riot. So, as there is no restriction on what books a boy of twelve may purchase, I snapped up a copy of Irving's novel from the local Woolworth's and sat down to read.

Many, many days later, my perception of reality had been permanently skewed, a result of an influx of deeply adult themes and settings that my then-tender grey matter was ill-prepared to accept. I'm not complaining, I'm just saying, not what I expected. But it was awesome. A novel richer and more dynamic than anything I had ever come across. Since then, I have reread Garp's story numerous times, and as in the case of all great stories, always discover something new, another nuance that only age reveals to me. And then I discovered The Hotel New Hampshire, and then The Cider House Rules. I've read them all at least four times each, and Irving has carved a permanent place in my heart.

But I did not care for A Prayer for Owen Meaney. Despite protestations from acquaintances that it remains his best work, I found it unexpectedly forced, artificial, and surprisingly annoying (although it remains astronomically better than the movie adaptation, which will surely go down in history as one of mankind's most awful crimes). And after that, I simply fell away from Irving's oeuvre. I gave a half-hearted stab at The Fourth Hand, but wasn't in the mood at the time. And the movie version of Cider House was, like almost everything Lasse Hallström directs, vastly overpraised; it really should have become an HBO miniseries.

But there were rumblings that Last Night in Twisted River was a return to form, so, hesitatingly, I cracked open his latest novel, and began to read a corker of an opening sentence; "The young Canadian, who could not have been more than fifteen, had hesitated too long." And what I found as I continued on through the pages was almost a primer (intentionally so) for everything I loved about Irving's earlier novels - it has (among other Irving obsessions) bears, farting dogs, unlikely coincidences, sex, sudden violence, accidental deaths, and gloriously rich characters.

But it was also uneven, occasionally sloppy, and sometimes unbearably twee (see the opening quotation of this review). But it is a John Irving novel through and through, and in the end, that is quite a good thing indeed.

Last Night follows the father/son duo of Dominic and Daniel Baciagalupo. Dominic is a cook at the Twisted River Logging camp, creating food fit for kings for loggers too hungry to appreciate his craft. Dominic's wife passed away years earlier in an accident on the frozen river, and ever since, "Dominic had the look of a man long resigned to his fate. He was so unflinchingly calm that he radiated a kind of acceptance that could easily be mistaken for pessimism." Or, "Neither a storyteller nor a dynamite man, Danny Baciagalupo thought of his father." But Dominic lives for his son, and when a strange event occurs - an accident so unlikely you marvel at how effortlessly Irving pulls it off - Dominic and Daniel are forced to flee the camp, changing their identities as the hop from city to city, only keeping in contact with their former life through Ketchum, a hard-talking logger who functions as the novel's Greek chorus, always telling the Baciagalupo's how to stay alive, always commenting on their actions.

As the Baciagalupo's traverse a portion of the United States (and, later, Canada), Daniel's natural talent begins to flourish. The novel transforms from a chase scenario into an examination of what it means to be a writer. Irving clearly has a lot of fun with the details, as much of what happens to Danny runs parallel to Irving's own experiences:
"All writers are outsiders," Danny Angel once said. "I moved to Toronto because I like being an outsider." But no one believed him. Besides, it was a better story that the world-famous author had rejected the United States.
Like Daniel, Irving has made a home in Toronto (although to my knowledge he has not become a citizen). Like Daniel, Irving is a successful novelist whose work is constantly scrutinized for hints of his own existence. While all authors use pieces of themselves in their writing, here Irving deliberately plays with the notion, crafting a character who serves as both a focal point for the narrative and as a meta-character for Irving, drawing attention to Irving's own life while subverting it to suit the novel.

It's clever, and each of Last Night's individual pieces work well, often superlatively. Irving's recreations of the logging camps of the 1940s, and later of the various kitchens Dominic works in, are superlative, giving the book a welcome flavour of authenticity. His characters (always his greatest strength) are believable and robust, particularly Dominic and Ketchum. Ketchum is a terrific creation, one of Irving's best, an over-the-top mountain man with hidden reservoirs of wisdom. In lesser hands, Ketchum would be a completely unbelievable construct, but Irving lodges a human centre within Ketchum's ferociousness; in many ways, he is similar to Saul Bellow's brilliant comic creation Henderson, brash and impulsive yet undeniably charismatic and wondrously complex.

But Daniel only becomes the focal point at the midway point or thereabouts, and his transformation from confused child to talented author is sudden and unconvincing. Irving fills in a lot of Daniel's backstory as he goes, but Daniel never fully congeals into a recognizable character of his own. Irving's fun with meta distances the audience from Daniel, and as a result Daniel skirts the edges of full characterization without ever truly connecting. Comparing Daniel to Garp (another Irving writer/protagonist) only serves to show the cracks in Daniel's seams. Garp's functioned as his own character, and his life seemed more real; Daniel's existence is shown through a prism of authorial cleverness, and can't function on his own. He lacks a recognizable character arc of his own. His story is stuck on the path of the novel, rather than the novel allowing Daniel to find his own way.

And as much as the individual pieces work, when jumbled together they show the novel to be a quite misshapen beast. Some have said that the Baciagalupo's lives correlate with the violence and political landscape of the United States. That may very well be, but the sudden introduction of commentary on current events is jarring, and does not mesh with the story. The narrative drive that propelled his best works is in a lower gear here, resulting in swatches of story that threaten to stall altogether.

And yet, the overall story is still vastly affecting in that manner only a few gifted storytellers can attain. Irving's novel may be rough, but it still touches, and while he may not hit the heights of his trio of powerhouse novels, be shows that he is not bereft of stories to tell. Last Night in Twisted River may be lesser Irving, but lesser Irving is still, at the root of it, a damned entertaining thing.



Remi said...

For some reason, the one Irving book I go back to once in a while is A Widow for One Year. I like his earlier stuff a lot but Widow remains my favourite.

Jeanne said...

Since you describe your reaction to his novels almost exactly as I'd describe mine (minus being a young boy when I read Garp), I think I'll give this new one a try. Without reading this review, I would have just passed it by.

Mark said...

Yes, he lost me at exactly the same time. (I think I may have been a little older when I read Garp -- 15? -- but it had the same impact on me.)

I'll give this a try!

Corey said...

It's a good novel, and I think if it weren't Irving my rating would be a little more enthusiastic.

Carla said...

I've been wondering whether I should give this one a shot and after reading your review, I think I will. You should give A Fourth Hand another try - it's Irving at his comedic best.

Anonymous said...

Anyone confused about the evil blue mustang, which never seems to get resolved? Was it just a reference to Garp?

Anonymous said...

The eveil "blue mustang" never resolves itself? Was Lady Sky the driver? Is it just a reference from Garp?

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