One of the trickiest feats for a fiction writer to pull off is making a novelist the protagonist of a novel, and John Irving's Last Night in Twisted River is a case in point.
I was looking forward to this book as a longtime fan of Irving's work, especially The World According to Garp, The Cider House Rules and A Prayer for Owen Meany. But Last Night in Twisted River is a loose and baggy tale in search of a center.
Or rather, a stronger center than Daniel Baciagalupo, a.k.a. Danny Angel, motherless boy, fugitive from vengeance, famous writer — and much less interesting than many of the characters who surround him.
The book's opening chapters, set in a rough little logging town on the Twisted River in New Hampshire, promise the kind of Dickensian story Irving has written before. The setting and its history are richly detailed, and the drowning of a boy working at the camp sets up reverberations with Danny's family history.
His doting father, Dominic, is the camp's cook, and Dominic's best friend is Ketchum, a Bunyanesque river driver with vast appetites for food, sex, drink, firearms and pain. The two men's bonds go beyond friendship and love for Danny, who is 12 as the book opens. Dominic and Ketchum were both there the night 10 years before when Danny's mother, Rosie, fell through the ice on Twisted River during a midnight dance. Both adored her, and both were too drunk to save her.
That particular disaster, though, is not the event that puts the novel in motion. Having once chased a bear (well, maybe it was a bear) out of his kitchen by whacking it with a cast-iron skillet, Dominic keeps said skillet hanging on the wall by his bedroom door in case of emergency. One night young Danny sees another bear, or thinks he does, and grabs the fateful kitchenware.
Someone ends up dead, and Dominic and Danny flee in the middle of the night to avoid the lethal wrath of a local lawman called Constable Carl. Thus begins an odyssey that takes them to Boston, Iowa, Vermont, Toronto and elsewhere, spending five decades evading the consequences of an accident.
Dominic and Danny repeatedly abandon jobs and lovers to run when they think Carl is on their trail, yet they don't bother to lock the doors to their house. And Carl himself is a barely sketched cartoon bad guy, not present enough to seem threatening.
The cook's profession makes for some of the most vivid scenes, set in restaurant kitchens and peopled by their lively crews. The menus are intriguing but often historically dubious— was any restaurant in Iowa City serving mascarpone ravioli with white truffle oil in 1975? Even the chow he serves loggers in Twisted River in 1959 — banana bread French toast, fresh-baked scones — sounds like the menu at a posh 21st century B&B.
If I had been swept up in the story, these details wouldn't have bothered me. I'll buy all kinds of outlandish coincidence, irrational behavior and historical inaccuracy in the interest of compelling characters and propulsive storytelling.
But once Danny and his dad hit the road, Twisted River loses its way. As Danny grows up, Irving makes his protagonist into a thinly veiled stand-in for himself: Danny attends the Iowa Writers Workshop at the same time Irving did and has the same teachers (Vonnegut, Cheever), his novels are mirrors of Irving's, and they have the same fractious relationship with the media. So Twisted River becomes a novel about becoming a novelist.
It's a most post-modern trick that can be done well (Ian McEwan's Atonement comes to mind, as do other of Irving's books, notably Garp), but here it has a curious side effect. Many of the novel's key events — deaths, breakups, major sexual experiences — take place offstage, not described as they are happening but as Danny the writer remembers them and considers them as fodder for his fiction. The result is a leaching of emotion and immediacy.
Most of the time, Danny himself is passive, an observer rather than a participant, even in his own life. That's plausible for a writer, although sometimes his passivity strains belief. While attending a party in Iowa during his brief, miserable marriage, he watches an Amazonian naked woman skydive, then rescues her when she accidentally lands in a pigpen. Both Danny and his 2-year-old son, Joe, are struck with love for "Lady Sky," as the boy calls her, but she washes off the pig manure and drives away. So Danny just pines for her — for 40 years. Really, even pre-Google, how hard could it have been to find a naked skydiver in Iowa?
Other episodes in Danny's life are inexplicably out of character. In one disturbing scene that seems to have no connection to anything else in the book, Danny and a couple Irving describes as his "best friends" — although they appear nowhere but in this scene — deliberately, violently kill a neighbor's two dogs just because they chased Danny during a run. Over drinks later, Danny thinks of the couple, "He admired their certainty." Yow.
At least that scene is described as it happens. As the novel goes on, more and more of it is devoted to Danny thinking about writing, to what other characters think about Danny's novels, to what room in his house he likes to write in. In the meantime, digressions multiply and go nowhere, and other potentially interesting characters are reduced to broad strokes and repeated behaviors. (By the time Ketchum exclaimed "Constipated Christ!" for the 40th time, I was ready to take that skillet to him.)
By the final chapters, Danny is writing the very novel we're reading. Irving, like any successful author, has given countless talks and interviews and no doubt been asked at every one, "How do you write your books?" Readers do like to hear authors talk about their process — but maybe not while they're reading the book.
Colette Bancroft can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org or (727) 893-8435. She blogs on Critics Circle at blogs.tampabay.com/arts.