Monday, October 27, 2014

"Last Night in Twisted River"
by John Irving
I did not care that much for John Irving’s twelfth novel, "Last Night in Twisted River," published in 2009. I considered returning the book to the public library several times but did eventually read all of its 554 pages. It is not that I believe that Mr. Irving is an inferior writer. He definitely is not. Several wonderfully narrated scenes engaged my emotions. Non-essential detail and believability issues about some of the actions of some of the novel’s characters are my chief criticisms.

The novel starts well. Three people quickly emerge as the story’s most important characters. In 1954 Dominic Baciagalupo is a logging and sawmill settlement cook in northern New Hampshire. He is raising his twelve-year-old son Daniel, his wife Rosie having died when Daniel was two. Ketchum is a veteran logger and close friend of Dominic. A fifteen-year-old log roller who answers to the name of “Angel,” who had worked in Dominic’s kitchen, and of whom Ketchum is protective, falls under logs being freed from a river logjam. Swept away underneath the logs by a swift current, he drowns. Ketchum plans to meet Dominic at Dead Woman Dam, where they believe Angel’s body will be found. We discover that the dead woman of the name of the dam was Rosie, she having fallen through cracking ice ten years earlier while “do-si-do” dancing with Dominic and Ketchum, both of whom were drunk. They expect to find Angel’s body where they had found Rosie’s.

Dominic’s dishwasher, Injun Jane, relates to Daniel (“Danny”) the immediate aftermath of Rosie’s disappearance under the ice.

“'But she was gone that fast, Danny … And when we got back to the cookhouse, you were wide awake and screaming … I took it as a sign that you somehow knew your mom was gone. I couldn’t get you to stop crying—you or your father. Ketchum had got hold of a cleaver. He just stood in the kitchen with his left hand on a cutting board, holding the cleaver in his right hand.' Danny wondered why the left hand. Ketchum was right-handed. If you hated yourself, … wouldn’t you want to cut off your good hand?"

We find out that Dominic and Injun Jane, who is a very large woman, are lovers. We know that Jane lives with the local constable, Carl, a vicious bully and woman beater. In the late evening before Dominic and Ketchum are to meet at Dead Woman Dam, Daniel hears noises in his father’s bedroom. He peers inside. He believes he sees a bear astride his father, Jane’s unbraided long hair appearing to be fur. Danny grabs the eight ounce cast iron skillet that is hung inside the bedroom door, the skillet (Danny has been told) used by his father once to kill a bear that had entered the cook’s residence. He strikes Jane on her skull, instantly killing her. Dominic and Danny manage to transport Jane’s body to Carl’s apartment. They hope that, awakening from a drunken stupor and discovering her body, he will think he has killed her and will secretly bury her. Following Ketchum’s advice, Dominic and Danny leave for north Boston to connect with Angel’s relatives, they having discovered where he had lived prior to coming to Twisted River.

This segment of the novel, with all its back stories about Dominic, his mother, his wife Rosie, and Ketchum is excellent. The only quibble I had was the killing of Injun Jane. I very much liked her as a character. Secondly, even though the author strived to make the event credible, I had difficulty accepting that Danny would have mistaken Jane for a bear.

At this point we are 118 pages into the novel. The action of the remaining 436 pages occurs in five different geographic locations. Because Carl learns the truth about Jane’s death and is determined to kill them, Dominic and Danny must periodically relocate. It is 2005 when the novel ends, 51 years after Injun Jane’s death. Three threads are developed during these 436 pages: the evasion of Carl, the reader’s gradual comprehension of the reasons for Ketchum’s guilt, and Danny’s long journey to gain happiness. Dominic works as a cook at most of these locations, we meet a variety of minor characters that the author feels he must develop in detail, and Danny becomes a famous novelist. Much of the novel focuses on Danny’s real and perceived difficulties, which include the raising of a beloved son. Especially difficult for me to accept was that Danny would marry the despicable person that provides him his son. Danny’s story, and especially the novel’s ending (even though it is satisfying), is the least credible thread. Ketchum, driven by guilt and the need to protect Dominic and Danny, remains a central, intriguing character.

The author is slow at reaching climatic events. The events are riveting, but the pace of the novel is annoyingly slow. The author uses too much space portraying unimportant characters such as Danny’s eighth grade English teacher (Why do we need to know that he attended strip tease shows?), Danny’s multiple lovers, and the kitchen personnel at the various restaurants where Dominic works. Prior to writing his novel, Mr. Irving interviewed numerous chefs and restaurateurs to learn about the preparation of different kinds of food. We encounter passages like the following.

"Mao’s version of oysters Rockefeller was topped with panko, Japanese bread crumbs, and Ah Go used grapeseed oil and shallots to make the mayonnaise for his crabcakes. (The crab was tossed in the Japanese bread crumbs with some chopped tarragon; the panko didn’t get soggy in the fridge, the way other bread crumbs did.)"

Illustrating a link between Danny’s fictional characters and his life experiences, Mr. Irving, I believe, gives too much information about Danny’s eight novels. Excessive detail to achieve authenticity risks killing a reader’s desire to read.

Mr. Irving did, however, strike the right balance in his use of resource information about logging. He makes believable the atypical characteristics of loggers and sawmill employees, and he relates effectively the dangerous work they perform -- a major accomplishment. This information, providing excellent context, helps us accept Ketchum as an authentic person. Without Ketchum, the novel is not worth reading.