Saturday, September 25, 2010

Last Night in Twisted River, by John Irving

I finished reading Last Night in Twisted River while traveling and, not wanting to lug it home, I took it downstairs the next morning to see if anyone else in my group wanted it. "What's it like?" one woman asked. "Very John Irving-ish," I answered--and immediately got two replies: "No thanks, I find him irritating" and "I'll take it--I love him."

While I doubt that Michiko Kakutani probably wouldn't use a phrase like "John Irving-ish," it is descriptive. Last Night in Twisted River has New England settings, a central father-son relationship, oddball characters and plot twists that strain credulity, vaguely incestuous sex, tragic and tragicomic events, multiple bears, wrestling, etc. etc.

The central characters are cook Dominic Baciagulpo and his son Daniel, who will become a famous writer with many career experiences paralleling those of John Irving. The plot is involved (and related in nonlinear fashion) but suffice it to say that the two go on the lam after Daniel accidentally kills a woman who is having sex with his father. As years pass, and the dynamic switches from the father protecting the son to the son protecting the father, Irving explores a number of themes, perhaps most notably how people make a life in a "world of accidents" and how a writer's life experiences inform his work. The latter is especially interesting, since Daniel is irritated by the degree to which people believe his work is autobiographical--yet on the surface (and Irving, after all, provides that surface), the works do appear to be highly autobiographical. And, indeed, a central trope is that Daniel is writing this book as his ninth novel, and the first to appear under his real name.

I enjoyed reading the book and found Dominic, Daniel, and their friend, the wildman Ketchum, to be well-drawn characters. However, the women were less well-realized, and many aspects of the plot were bizarre enough to approach the surreal. I'm sure the latter is part of Irving's exploration of his themes, but for a literalist like me, it detracts from the meaning I can draw from the book. Worth reading if you like a dose of "John Irving-ishness" every so often--but if you haven't already done so, read The World According to Garp and A Widow for One Year first.

Favorite passage:

Since I gave the book away, I can't go back and find passages I liked--sorry!

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