My logger neighbor Ed called me a few weeks ago and asked if I’d like to see some pretty lumber. Well, sure. I don’t know a lot about lumber, but I was born in a company-owned woodworking town famous for its quartered-oak office furniture, and decades ago, after a week at the renowned MFA writing program at the University of California at Irvine, I bid a last, tearless farewell to the academic world, drove home to Vermont in two and a half days, and went to work in the woods myself. My boss was a former Prohibition-era whiskeyrunner, moonshiner, and poacher named Jake Blodgett, who became the inspiration for the logger and riverdriver Noel Lord in my novel Where the Rivers Flow North and, better yet, the namesake of my son Jake.
Ed was cutting tamarack, for deck flooring. I knew that tamarack lumber was very water-resistant, and was once widely used for stable and covered bridge planking. I didn’t know how beautiful it is. Ed’s boards were shot through with red and amber streaks, and a handsome ochre color similar to the color that tamarack trees themselves turn in the late fall just before they drop their needles.
That evening, after admiring the gorgeous red-and-yellow boards, and reminiscing with Ed about my long-ago stint as an apprentice logger up in the Great North Woods near the Canadian border, I was in exactly the right frame of mind to plunge into John Irving’s fifteenth novel, Last Night in Twisted River, which starts out in a remote lumber camp in northernmost New Hampshire, not far from my home in Vermont’s fabled “Northeast Kingdom.”
I say “plunge into” advisedly, because like a number of other books by John Irving, Last Night in Twisted River is lengthy: 565 pages, to be exact, counting the Afterword. It just doesn’t seem long. I spent most of my evenings during the last week of July and the first week of August with Irving’s latest ensemble of ever-so-human characters, who soon became my regular nightly companions. When I finished the story, I felt as though it could have gone on another 500 pages without boring me in the least. That’s a feeling I haven’t had with a long novel since I finished Lonesome Dove.
Last Night in Twisted River begins with two horrifying events: an accidental drowning during a log drive in 1954 on one of New Hampshire’s last wilderness rivers; and an instance of involuntary, but extremely bloody, manslaughter, in which young Danny Baciagalupo (Italian for “Kiss of the Wolf”) mistakes his father’s girlfriend for a ravaging bear and smashes in her skull with a lumber-camp frying pan, killing her instantly.
What ensues is the most memorable father-son road trip I’ve ever read. Danny and his father Dominic spend much of the rest of their lives fleeing a vengeful New Hampshire constable named “Cowboy Carl,” who is determined to find them and gun them down. Dominic, an expert chef, initially relocates himself and Danny in an Italian neighborhood in the North End of Boston. There, a sympathetic teacher helps launch Danny on his way to becoming a world-famous author. (He writes under the name Danny Angel, to avoid detection by Cowboy Carl.)
With the constable hot on their trail, Danny and his father move to Iowa City, then Vermont, then back to Iowa – where Danny Angel teaches at the famous writers workshop – to Vermont again, Toronto, and finally to an isolated island in Georgian Bay on Lake Huron. Place is important to John Irving, and his evocations of America (and its history from the War in Vietnam to the attack on 9/11/2001) are wonderful. Here’s the acclaimed author of The World According to Garp and The Cider House Rules on Danny’s island writing retreat in the Ontario wilds:
“The mid-February storm had blown across Lake Huron from western Canada, but when the wind and snow hit the Georgian Bay islands, the wind shifted and the snow just kept falling. The wind now blew from a southerly direction, from Parry Sound to Shawanaga Bay. From his writing shack, Danny could no longer see where the bay ended and the mainland began. Because of the whiteout from the storm, the fir trees on what Danny knew was the mainland appeared as a mirage of a floating forest – or the trees seemed to be growing out of the frozen bay. The wind whipped little spirals of snow skyward; these twisters looked like small tornadoes of snow.”
It’s the magnificent characters, however, that make Last Night at Twisted River such a remarkable novel. It’s hard to make a writer come to life in fiction. After all, writers spend most of the day, and many nights as well, alone with their imaginations. There’s nothing very dramatic about that. But Danny is such a fine creation, such a good, if deeply conflicted and self-indicting, father and son himself, that we come to care deeply for him, as we do for Dominic, and to hope against hope that they will be able to continue eluding the homicidal cowboy-constable from New Hampshire.
As usual, Irving generously treats his readers to a host of unforgettable minor characters. Many of them could have come right out of the pages of a Dickens novel. (John Irving credits Dickens, in his fascinating Afterword on his writing process, for inspiring him to want to write.) My favorite minor character from Last Night in Twisted River isn’t minor at all. Old Ketchum, a resourceful, blasphemous, violent, wildly hilarious yet ever-so-kind-hearted woodsman, Dominic’s best friend from his days as a lumber-camp cook, undertakes to “look out for” Danny (whose mother died young). Ketchum may well be the most vital character in this novel. I’d put him right up there with those marvelous old Texas Rangers in Lonesome Dove, Gus McCrae and Woodrow Call.
I loved the Italian and Chinese chefs Dominic and Danny meet in Boston and Iowa City. And I won’t soon forget Ketchum’s two-fisted girlfriend, Six-Pack Pam, or Lady Sky (a strapping strawberry blonde who sky-dives naked!), or the trouble-making, “bad old broads” May and Dot, or a dozen others.
As a bonus, Irving has a good deal to say, in Last Night in Twisted River, about Danny’s (and his own) writing process. It’s all interesting; in fact, I’d recommend the novel to aspiring fiction writers for the solid information it offers on the craft of writing. Irving is especially insightful on the largely-overlooked virtues, in our era, of plotting.
Years ago, when I finished The Cider House Rules, I really didn’t see how John Irving could ever surpass that masterpiece. I think he has, though. Last Night in Twisted River is a great story, written beautifully and with unflagging honesty, emotional force, and artistic daring.
Finally, on a personal level, I’m pretty sure that my hero Ketchum (he has no known first name) would have approved of my decision to jettison my academic career forty-some years ago and go to work in the woods with Jake Blodgett. In fact, I’m one hundred percent sure he’d have approved. Now Irving’s old woodsman – like Pip, Huck, Queequeg, Gus and Woodrow, Lucky Jim and Emma Woodhouse and Elizabeth Bennet – is my friend for life. That means a lot to me.
So thank you, John Irving, for helping to keep traditional storytelling, in the best literary sense, alive in this strange, electronic age we live in. Charles Dickens didn’t have many good things to say about America, but I think he’d have loved this quintessentially American novel by one of the greatest fiction writers of our time. I know I did.