Slower developing, but Irving on Top of His Game

A brief review of one of my favorite authors, John Irving.  

It has been awhile since I have heard from John Irving.  The author best known for Cider  House Rules and A Prayer for Owen Meany used to be fairly prolific, releasing an average of one book a year in the late 90’s.  Since that time, his production has slowed to a crawl, and for a few years I was concerned that he might have stopped writing altogether.

Fortunately, after a four-year hiatus Irving began releasing novels again with 2005’s “Until I Find You,” a remarkably well-told story full of familiar Irving subject matter: wrestling, lost parents, abuse, and the fallibility of memory.  It took another four years, but Last Night in Twisted River was worth the wait.  It represents a departure from Irving’s more familiar themes, and its humor and self-awareness propel the novel to among Irving’s best.

The novel begins set in a logging camp, in the first half of the twentieth century.  The story is focused on the cook and his son, Danny, living in the extremely isolated and undeveloped town of Twisted River.  The novel begins by presenting a trilogy of tragedies:  the drowning of a young boy on the river, the remembrance of a similar drowning of Danny’s mother, and the accidental killing of the cook’s love interest, who Danny mistakes for a bear.  This latter event leads to their departure from Twisted River, and a life of hiding from an obsessed former police officer (called “the Cowboy”) who suspects them of the killing.

During the next several decades, the cook and Danny move to Boston, and then to Canada, in an attempt to stay ahead of the Cowboy.  Their only tie to Twisted River is an old logger named Ketchum, a friend who stays in close contact with them over the years.  Danny grows up to be a writer, and several of his novels are described in ways clearly designed to invoke Irving’s own work.  As with many of his novels, there is an autobiographical quality that shines through, only this time, he does not try to conceal it through fiction.

Ultimately, the Cowboy catches up to the cook, and kills him.  Danny comes to the cook’s rescue and kills the Cowboy, but is too late to save his father.  He continues writing despite the tragedies in his life, and his final novel ends up being an account of his escape from Twisted River, with its beginning mimicking the first chapters of this book.

Irving has always been a strong developer of characters, and while his plots tend to strain credulity, they are entertaining and often humorous.  With the exception of his latest release, 2012’s In One Person, I have read all of his novel-length work, and in my opinion, Last Night in Twisted River is his best.  While its characters are not as memorable as Owen Meany, and its political themes do not rival Cider House Rules, this novel represents a strength and cohesion of writing that is a level above Irving’s earlier works.  I strongly recommend it, and am pleased that this author has kept sharpening his skills.  I look forward to reading him again soon.


Published in: on July 5, 2013 at 9:31 pm  Leave a Comment  

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