Reading is most pleasurable when it’s unconscious. Absorbed in a book, you are utterly unaware of time passing. It’s as if you are floating, carried along on a current of air by the magical horsepower of the storyteller. The best years for a reader are when you’re young and unaware of such distractions as reviews and criticism, reputation and canon. You read for the sheer hell of it. The pages seem to turn of their own accord; you worry about the characters as if they were your own kith and kin; you’d read on if the house was burning down or you were meant to be at your wedding.
As we grow older, the way we read changes. As the late, lamented Irish writer John McGahern once pointed out, the change is linked to our growing consciousness. “We find,” he wrote, “that we are no longer reading books for the story and that all stories are more less the same story; and we begin to come on certain books that act like mirrors. What they reflect is dangerously close to our
life and the society in which we live.” I know what McGahern means. It is the terrible realisation that your innocence as a reader has been wrestled from you and that you can never be the same reader again, try as you might. Reading has made you a different reader.
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In the quest to regain that lost, edenic state, there are few better places to start than the work of John Irving. Rare among contemporary writers, Irving’s primary interest is in telling a story, using whatever means are at his disposal to hook readers and keep them on the end of the line. His ideal reader, I imagine, is one who wants nothing more – or less – from a book than to know what happens next. All of Irving’s novels – Last Night in Twisted River is his 12th – are told in the voice of a seductress. It is an unhurried, didactic, discursive (Irving
is unashamedly addicted to parentheses), teasing, Victorian, intuitive instrument. There is nothing pared down about Irving’s style. His love of encyclopaedic, rapacious books is reflected in his own, few of which, the latest included, come in at less than 500 pages.
Nor is Irving much bothered, it seems, by being seen to repeat himself. Rather, he revels in it. How aware he is of this is unclear. My guess is that he is but it is not an issue worth losing sleep over. It is simply the manner in which he writes. Thus bears and wrestling and New England all figure at some point in his novels. And more often than not there is a father and son relationship – or what passes for one – at the core of the story.
As his fans know well, Irving was brought up by his mother and his step-father. His natural father was entirely absent from his life but only relatively recently – Irving is now 67 – did he learn that this was not because he wanted to be. For Irving, it must have been as if his life and work had been built on a lie.
And what is true for him is true for his characters, who frequently live their lives on the basis of a misapprehension. Inevitably, the truth will out, but only after emotional and physical pain have been endured.
All this is pertinent to Last Night in Twisted River. The river in question, a silent presence in a garrulous novel, is in northern New Hampshire. It is a logging river and, when the story begins in 1954, it is still used to transport timber. This is a dangerous occupation and from the outset Irving underlines just how perilous it is for those who work on it. A 15-year-old Canadian boy, Angel Pope (the Christian name, surely, has tragic Hardyesque overtones), inexperienced at moving on floating logs, loses his footing, slips between the logs and, despite the attempt by his mentor, Ketchum, to rescue him, is drowned.
In this opening scene Irving gives and withholds information in equal measure. What grips the reader first, though, is the portrait of the river and the logging scene and the men who make their living in such hazardous conditions. Three men dominate Last Night on Twisted River. First and foremost there is Dominic Baciagalupo, a cook for lumberjacks. Then there is his son, 12-year-old Daniel, who will grow up to be a writer with a CV and oeuvre uncannily similar to Irving’s. The third man, Ketchum, has hair and a beard “blacker than a black bear’s fur”, which we later realise is significant.
Dominic’s wife and Daniel’s mother is dead, making Dominic – Cookie, as he is nicknamed – a hyper-protective father. Ketchum, who is rougher and tougher, is likewise a paternal figure and, as the novel progresses, we learn why he and Cookie have become umbilically tied friends. For many authors, the first 116-page section of Last Night in Twisted River would have been enough to make
a novel on its own. Having begun with a death, it ends with one, which forces Cookie and Dominic to do a bunk. Both now are on the run and will be, in a sense, for the rest of their lives. Only Ketchum knows where they’ve gone and why. Long-buried secrets, though, as Irving knows, have a habit of finding their way to the surface. Though they change their names and cover their tracks, Cookie and his son cannot disappear for ever from their pursuer.
By 1967 they are in Boston, where Cookie is working in a restaurant surrounded by Angel’s family and where he takes up with his mother. To avoid the Vietnam draft, Daniel accepts an invitation from a charitable woman to whom he is briefly married to “knock her up”. New fathers, it transpires, are exempt from call-up. “They called young dads like Danny Baciagalupo ‘Kennedy fathers’,” we’re told. In March 1963, apparently, JFK issued a short-lived order expanding paternity deferment. The Kennedy Fathers is the title of one of Danny’s novels, his fourth, which became his first bestseller and a
movie, just like The World According to Garp, Irving’s raucously brilliant fourth novel. Daniel’s sixth novel is called East of Bangor and is set in an orphanage in Maine – as, of course, was The Cider House Rules.
What Irving is doing here is unclear. At times, it seems, he may be squaring up to critics who accuse Daniel – his alter ego – of being “overrated” and “repeating himself”. That, though, is to underestimate him, which would be silly. As his narrator says, “All writers must know how to distance themselves, to detach themselves from this and that emotional moment, and Danny could do this – even at twelve.”
My guess is that what is true for Danny is equally true for Irving. For both novelists – the one fictional, the other real – the past is ever-present, and what happened at certain crucial junctures in their lives will remain with them forever, propelling them forward while always encouraging them to look back. That’s what real writers do. Is Last Night in Twisted River as good, say, as Garp, The Cider House Rules, A Prayer for Owen Meany, The Hotel New Hampshire, or Until I Find You? It certainly is.