John Irving's army of devoted fans—some of them befuddled by the grim tone and tattooed "ink addicts" of his previous novel, Until I Find You—will rejoice in Last Night in Twisted River.The novel echoes many of the author's past glories, notablyThe World According to Garp and The Cider House Rules, even as it anticipates and gently pokes fun at critics who will insist he is "repeating himself." Irving, who has often professed his devotion to the densely plotted novels of Charles Dickens, has produced a satisfyingly Dickensian story: It stretches over five decades, twisting back on itself at regular intervals before returning to its source.
The action centers on the life and career of writer Daniel Baciagalupo, AKA Danny Angel. In 1954, the 12-year-old Daniel is living at a remote logging camp in northern New Hampshire, where his father works as a cook. One night a disastrous accident occurs when the boy mistakes the girlfriend of a vicious local constable for a bear, forcing Daniel and his father to change their identities and flee the reach of the vengeful lawman. The pair wind up first in Boston, where they find a new home in a North End restaurant; eventually they will make their way to Vermont, Iowa, and Toronto.
Almost all the Irving hallmarks are here—bears, wrestling, running, even an orphanage in Maine—but the author appears to be offering these well-used nuggets in the spirit of inquiry. As Danny Angel matures and establishes himself as a successful writer, Irving pauses frequently to meditate on the relationship between the writer's life and work: "Danny Angel's fiction had been ransacked for every conceivably autobiographical scrap; his novels had been dissected and overanalyzed for whatever could be construed as the virtual memoirs hidden inside them."
Perhaps so—but Irving enthusiasts must be forgiven if they rise to the bait. Danny Angel's life follows a distinctly Irving-like trajectory: prep school and the Iowa Writers Workshop, a breakthrough fourth novel that propels him to fame and fortune, and finally a fruitful stint in the movie business and a celebrated "abortion novel."
The book also overflows with moments that pointedly recall pivotal scenes from John Irving's earlier work, as when Danny Angel imagines his own death while passing an old lover's house on one of his afternoon runs: "He would be running on the road, just a half-second past her driveway, and Barrett would come gliding down the hill, her car coasting in neutral, with the engine off, so that by the time he heard her tires scattering the loose gravel on the road, it would be too late for him to get out of the almost-silent car's path." The passage reads like a rough draft of the notorious Michael Milton incident inThe World According to Garp, in which a gliding car deprives the unhappy character of his rhythm stick.
One suspects these many intersections between Irving's career and that of his character are not entirely coincidental, and it's fun to see the author give the "virtual memoirs" issue a public airing. A comment from Danny Angel's father probably comes closest to a final word on the matter: "Somehow what struck him about Daniel's fiction was that it was both autobiographical and not autobiographical at the same time."
The theme of writerly self-examination lends an urgent context to Danny Angel's lifelong flight from the tragically defining event of his childhood. "That was where the writer's fearful imagination came from—childhood terrors," his father muses at one stage. "The writer Danny Angel seemed driven to imagine the worst things that could happen in any given situation. In a way, as a writer—that is to say, in his imagination—the cook's son… was still a child." That may be true as far as it goes, but it takes a mature gift to craft those imaginings into such a gripping novel. For all its terrors, Last Night in Twisted River is an uplifting, thoroughly engaging story, and a classic example of the elegant plotting that has been John Irving's trademark for more than 40 years.
In the words of one of Danny Angel's admirers: "The kid simply had a gift for storytelling."
Daniel Stashower's most recent book is The Beautiful Cigar Girl: Mary Rogers, Edgar Allan Poe, and the Invention of Murder.