In 1954, in the cookhouse of a logging and sawmill settlement in northern New Hampshire, an anxious twelve-year-old boy mistakes the local constable’s girlfriend for a bear. Both the twelve-year-old and his father become fugitives, forced to run from Coos County—to Boston, to southern Vermont, to Toronto—pursued by the implacable constable. Their lone protector is a fiercely libertarian logger, once a river driver, who befriends them. In a story spanning five decades, Last Night in Twisted River depicts the recent half-century in the United States as “a living replica of Coos County, where lethal hatreds were generally permitted to run their course.” What further distinguishes Last Night in Twisted River is the author’s unmistakable voice—the inimitable voice of an accomplished storyteller.
Irving (The World According to Garp) returns with a scattershot novel, the overriding themes, locations and sensibilities of which will probably neither surprise longtime fans nor win over the uninitiated. Dominic "Cookie" Baciagalupo and his son, Danny, work the kitchen of a New Hampshire logging camp overlooking the Twisted River, whose currents claimed both Danny's mother and, as the novel opens, mysterious newcomer Angel Pope. Following an Irvingesque appearance of bears, Cookie and Danny's "world of accidents" expands, precipitating a series of adventures both literary and culinary. The ensuing 50-year slog follows the Baciagalupos from a Boston Italian restaurant to an Iowa City Chinese joint and finally a Toronto French cafe, while dovetailing clumsily with Danny's career as the distinctly Irving-like writer Danny Angel. The story's vicariousness is exacerbated by frequent changes of scene, self-conscious injections of how writers must "detach themselves" and a cast of invariably flat characters. With conflict this meandering and characters this limp, reflexive gestures come off like nostalgia and are bound to leave readers wishing Irving had detached himself even more.
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John Irving writes about what scares him most: the loss of a child. This theme is in A Widow for One Year, Garp, and now Twisted River. He simply is the most gifted and consistent American story teller alive. We all have but one life. Time spent with John Irving is worth spending.