Writing about writing

In his latest, John Irving serves up a meditation, with abundant plot twists, on why novelists do what they do

By Floyd Skloot
October 25, 2009

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John Irving’s career as a novelist began in 1968, with the publication of “Setting Free the Bears.’’ The career of novelist Danny Angel, the main character in Irving’s new novel, “Last Night in Twisted River,’’ spans the same 41 years.

This is not a casual gesture on Irving’s part. To further entangle author and character, Irving creates obvious career parallels: Angel becomes an international success in the late 1970s with his fourth novel, as Irving did with his fourth, “The World According to Garp’’; Angel publishes an “abortion novel’’ called “East of Bangor’’ in the mid-1980s just as Irving published “The Cider House Rules’’; cameos are made by well-known colleagues of Irving’s such as Kurt Vonnegut, John Cheever, Raymond Carver, Marvin Bell, and Salman Rushdie; Boston, Vermont, New Hampshire, Iowa City, and Toronto figure prominently, as do wrestling, teaching, and engagement in the film world. Clearly, we are meant to recognize the congruence.

Further, as the story progresses we discover that the book we are reading is being written by its main character - “Last Night in Twisted River’’ by John Irving is “Last Night in Twisted River’’ by Danny Angel (well, by Daniel Baciagalupo, who has been publishing novels under the name of Danny Angel - in case the confusion and mingling of identities has not gone far enough).

The metafictional, self-reflexive business is in part a tease. While inviting a reader to focus on autobiographical elements, it allows Irving, in the voice of Angel, to protest the way his “fiction had been ransacked for every conceivably autobiographical scrap’’ and “dissected and overanalyzed for whatever could be construed as the virtual memoirs hidden inside them.’’ Except for Irving’s failure to name Danny Angel John Irving, this is all very Philip Roth.

But Irving’s purpose in this, his 12th novel, goes well beyond fictional experimentation. “Last Night in Twisted River’’ is about the forces that shape a writer’s life, that create literary sensibility and the compulsion to use writing as a way of managing life’s essential chaos and randomness: To make sense of this “world of accidents,’’ coincidences, and the disorder inherent in human violence. Thus it is also about - and enacts for the reader - the process by which a writer shapes his life, as Danny makes use of the experiences we witness and confronts the things that most frighten him: “Daniel was absolutely terrified of something happening to his loved ones; he simply obsessed about that subject. That was where the writer’s fearful imagination came from - childhood terrors.’’

Of course “childhood, and how it forms you’’ is at the core of the story Irving and Angel have to tell. We first meet Danny in 1954, when the 12-year-old is living with his widowed father, Dominic Baciagalupo, the cook in a New Hampshire logging camp. Also present is an older logger, Ketchum, with mysterious ties to the family and its history, and a doomed dishwasher named Injun Jane. A series of accidents and coincidences (though “nothing struck the cook as too coincidental to be believed’’) sets the plot - and Danny and his father - in motion, chased for the next 46 years by a crazed, cartoonish police officer known as Constable Carl. To escape pursuit, the Baciagalupos change their names, relocate whenever they must, and form a bond that is both profound and deeply moving. Though each has important relationships with others, the father-son story, amplified by Ketchum’s occasional presence, gives the novel its soul.

Along the way, Danny Baciagalupo becomes the novelist Danny Angel. His father’s love of cooking, and the details of Dominic’s life at work, nicely echo Danny’s literary devotion. Much of the novel’s charm lies in how Irving infuses it with his passion for craft and storytelling, and the details of a writer’s or a chef’s life. Process fascinates Irving at least as much as finished products.

Danny’s relationships, marriage, experience with fatherhood, and the course of his career are given full dimension. By now, Irving’s narrative and thematic concerns are familiar enough that he can conveniently summarize them for readers within “Last Night in Twisted River’’: “dysfunctional families; damaging sexual experiences; various losses of innocence, all leading to regret.’’

The focused account of the family and its arts is packaged with Irving’s typically massive plot complications and a vast cast of secondary characters. It is a book that never lets you forget that it is a book, a written thing, full of commentary and repetition (and parenthetical clarifications) and foreshadowing and explanation. There is too much use of arcane details about logging, or menus, which are meant to add veracity but clog the narrative with the results of research. Themes are hammered home by direct statement and heavy emphasis, in case a reader has missed them: “Was enough ever enough, or did the violence just perpetuate - that is, whenever something began violently?’’ But it is a testimony to the story’s essential power, and the way a reader comes to care about Danny and Dominic and Ketchum, that the excesses do not overwhelm it.

Floyd Skloot’s recent books include the memoir “The Wink of the Zenith’’ and the poetry collection “The Snow’s Music.’’ His “Selected Poems: 1970-2005’’ won a Pacific Northwest Book Award earlier this year.

By John Irving
Random House, 554 pages; $28

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