Book Review


A Prayer for John Irving

Last Night In Twisted River should be Irving's last log-drive — but it almost certainly won't be
By Geoffrey Dow
Managing Editor, True North Perspective
Originally posted at Edifice Rex Online

The ageing writer stared out at the reader with all the intensity of an old athlete in denial. His fierce eyes and tight-lipped smile were islands of fading youth set amid the ragged 'scape of a craggy face topped by a shock of thinning grey hair brushed defiantly backwards, exposing a hairline receding like a melting glacier.

The reader was reminded of the hockey player Guy Lafleur during his last year as a Montreal Canadien, the team he had led to five Stanley Cups in the 1970s. The hockey player had been in slow decline for three years, become precipitous during the 1984-1985 season. The former 50 goal scorer managed a mere two in 19 games before hanging up his skates

There was no obvious reason for the hockey player's inability to score. To the reader, it seemed the hockey player could skate as fast, shoot the puck as hard, as he ever had; if anything, it looked like he skated faster than he once had — but maybe that was an illusion, a mirage, born of the fact that, though the old athlete's competitive spirit was as fierce as ever (or fiercer!), he had to work much harder even to almost accomplish what he had once made look easy.

But writers are not hockey players and analogies are treacherous tools. If some writers burn out early, as if they only had one or two books in them, others produce at a steady, life-long, pace without major ups or downs; still others — a minority, but not not a tiny minority — go out with a bang, leaving a masterpiece as their final legacy. Consider Joseph Heller, consider John le Carré, consider Mordechai Richler, as exemplars of the three types.

And consider John Irving's most recent novel, a long, a meandering and a very dull tome from a writer the reader is now certain ought to have retired once the first signs of auctorial impairment — a tendency to have his character give voice to the writer's political opinions — surfaced in the narrative of his last good book, A Prayer for Owen Meanie. (See A Widow for One Year for an especially egregious example.)

So let us consider Last Night In Twisted River.

Last Night In Twisted River
By John Irving
Vintage Canada, June 15, 2010)
Paperback: 592 pages
ISBN-10: 0307398374
ISBN-13: 978-0307398376

In case I wasn't already clear, Last Night In Twisted River is not a good novel. There might be a very good novella struggling to escape its nearly 600 pages — as most readers and most writers know very well, there are no dull stories, only interesting stories, poorly-told. And Last Night (as the title will henceforth here be abbreviated) is poorly-told indeed.

That's not to say that Irving can no longer write; it's clear that he can. Sentence by sentence, he is as good a writer as he ever was; but a story is more than a series of sentences strung together. A novel, or nearly any story, exists apart from the words used to tell it; how else to explain that Tolstoy is read and loved in English, that Shakespeare is read and loved in Japanese?

Irving can indeed still write, but somehow the depth is gone. His characters are still eccentric, still foul-mouthed, still fiercely loyal to friends and family; he still loves his emphases and his repetitions; and he cannot do without rural New England, bears and (more recently) Toronto.

The tricks in John Irving's word-processor have lost their edge, become dulled by familiarity, embrittled by over-use. His emphases and repetitions are annoying rather than amusing or endearing; his foul-mouthed eccentric is now a type, not a character; and narrator and author have become undeniably blurred.

It seems as if John Irving no longer has any stories to tell; at least, that he no longer has any stories he needs to tell, but that he still feels the need to write. But like a drunk on a barstool, he no longer knows how to tell them.

Featuring only three (arguably only two and a half) main players, Twisted River sees Irving's story following familiar paths. A fiercely-protective single father; a son who grows up to be (surprise!) a successful American writer; an eccentric friend and defender; gruesome and unlikely deaths and not a few coincidences drive the plot forward.

The fiercely protective father is one Dominic "Cookie" Baciagalupo, whom we meet at a logging camp in northern New Hampshire, where we stay in for the first 100 or so pages. The future writer is his son, Danny. The foul-mouthed eccentric is the hard-drinking logger with a heart of gold, Ketchum.

None of these men are memorable characters. Though Irving tells us a fair amount about the Cook, we never feels as if we know him. His son, Danny, is the same. Both are bland figures who, in better Irving novels, would be fifth business or spear carriers. Only Ketchum has any spark, but he is only a type: "foul-mouthed eccentric ... hard-drinking logger with a heart of gold" says it all.

In the first section of the new book, "Coos County, New Hampshire, 1954," we learn that, besides being a doting father and a decent cook, the widower is a man with a penchant for larger women. He is, it is slowly revealed (everything in this novel is revealed slowly!), having an affair with Injun Jane, an enormous woman who is also involved with the local cop, an abusive and arguably psychotic drunk called Constable Carl.

The section ends when young Danny mistakes Injun Jane for a bear and brains her with a cast-iron cooking pan, thus — on page 116! — finally setting in motion the novel's plot.

What is wrong with those first 116 pages, is what is wrong with the whole novel.

Remember Injun Jane? I barely do, and neither was I moved in the slightest when she was killed. All I knew about her, was that she was extremely fat, that she was nice to young Danny and that she had very long hair.

In the same way, all I remember of the book's Ahab, Constable Carl, is that he is mean and violent, stupid but obsessive. There are any number of other named personages who occupy play parts in the novel's other sections, but they are just as one-dimensinal and just as forgettable.

That John Irving — who brought to life such three-dimensional personalities as T.S. and Jenny Garp, as Franny Berry and Suzie the Bear, as Freud (not that Freud!) and Arthur Rose and Owen Meanie, not to mention Wilbur Larch — has in 600 pages failed to create even a single memorable personality is nothing short of astonishing.

Similarly, though he lists only a few sources at the back of the book, it feels as if Irving did a lot of research for Last Night, into pre-mechanization logging and into running kitchens. Unaccountably for a veteran and an accomplished writer, Irving seems almost to be showing off that research, instead of dropping necessary bits and pieces quietly into the background when needed.

And similarly again, Irving never manages to provide a real sense of place, either. Even Toronto — a city the writer made his part-time home for some years — feels like a place researched, not one lived in.

I swore off John Irving after 1994's A Son of the Circus, and then again, after a relapse for 1998's even more disappointing A Widow for One Year, where the writer — famous for insisting on the primacy of invention over autobiography in fiction — put his own doppelganger in a dress and wrote a novel that, as best I recall, was all about Awful Critics and Naive Readers who don't understand that fiction writers write fiction.

But for the political ranting that also mars this narrative, Irving seems to be writing fiction again, but it is dull and uninteresting fiction and — this time! — I think I am really done with him for good.

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