When I picked up John Irving’s latest novel it was a little bit like bumping into somebody you once had a massive falling out with, in the street. There is a part of you that wants to lower eyes and glide by without being seen. But it can’t be done. For whatever reason, the whim of the crowds perhaps, you’re brought face to face and you have no other option than to speak to one another. Talk about awkward. You see, me and John Irving go way back. I was reading John Irving in my teens. He is one of those writers I can lay claim to having read everything (published) by. Not only that. He’s a writer who was firmly in my top 10 right up until his last novel came out – his last novel being Until I Find You, an enormous, carpet bagging, doorstop of a book. I think it’s fair to say that me and Until I Find You did not meet eye to eye.
But there is a problem with talking about Until I Find You and that problem relates to Last Night in Twisted River, too. Over the years, as I’ve read each new Irving as it appeared (usually in hardback, that was the kind of fan I was), one of the many great pleasures to be had in a novel by John Irving was – not to put too fine a point on it – Irving’s way with a digression. John Irving was the master of the digression. You’d find stories embedded in stories embedded in stories, told by various dysfunctional characters (writers and wrestlers and damaged sorts). I remember remarking to somebody years and years ago that reading John Irving was sometimes akin to trying to close a holiday suitcase (there was always so much in his novels), if trying to close a holiday suitcase was to be considered a pleasurable pastime. With Until I Find You, though, I couldn’t read it for the digressions. It all felt like digressions. Reading Until I Find You was like trying to hammer down the guy rope on a tent flapping in a Force 10 gale. Get to the point, man! I’d say. The novel made me so cross, I couldn’t read it. Irving’s name was struck off the favourites list. You’ve done it now, Irving, I said to him (in my head). You’ve done it now!
Which hopefully goes some way towards explaining why, when it came to picking up Last Night in Twisted River I was (in marked contrast to years previous when I would’ve been giddy with enthusiasm) somewhat reluctant, to say the least. Last Night in Twisted River concerns a young boy called Danny and his father Dominic Baciagalupo (often called just ‘Cookie’, thanks to the fact that he works as a cook) who we meet in the small logging outpost of Twisted River as the novel opens. A terrible misunderstanding sends father and son off into the night (the title refers to the last night they spend on Twisted River and how it overshadows their life), and we follow them, for decades, as they try to evade their admittedly idiotic and psychotic pursuer. In the beginning, Irving is as digressive as ever and I could feel my gourd rising in the opening chapter or two wanting him to arrest me with the plot first before he started telling me about the history of logging (get to the point, man, I cried – give me a hint of why I should continue reading!) – but the novel does settle down and for the most part grips, as long as the hint of pursuit is in place.
In some respects Last Night in Twisted River is Irving’s Les Miserables, in that you have this long pursuit at its centre; where Last Night in Twisted River differs is in not attempting to strike a chord between pursuer and pursuee (a writer like TC Boyle would have us caring about both parties, switching allegiances and sympathies as the novel progressed; Irving is only interested in the pursuees). What’s more, there are tropes and methods that will be familiar to anyone who has read a handful of Irving books (Danny becomes a writer, for one thing – Irving is probably only second to Stephen King in terms of the number of times he’s written about writers; there are also a bevy of stock Irving characters – wrestlers, tattooed women etc – that seem to appear in each of his novels). Drama such as The Wire has upped the ante on what we can expect from our culture as well and so when Irving introduces the ‘Blue Mustang’ (a car that seems fated to end the life of one of our protagonists later in the novel, much like the Under Toad in The World According to Garp), we want Irving to refute what he would’ve done in the past and wrong foot us – but he doesn’t. What we get is what we’ve had previously: foreshadowed death followed by death.
It’s certainly more playful than Irving has been for a while (Danny eventually becomes a world famous writer called Danny Angel and his progression can be seen to mirror Irving’s own, slyly mocking the furore over his ‘abortion novel’, for instance) – and, when it gets going, it’s an enjoyable enough page turner. It takes a wee while to shake off the impression that he’s lost it (which I picked up in spades on Until I Find You) but shake it off he does, until we get to maybe the last 100 pages, where again, the narrative compulsion gets a bit lost. If I was being blunt, I’d say there is a great 300 page novel in here (a la The Fourth Hand). If the first 100 pages of the novel were turned into a single chapter of about 30 pages and the last 100 pages of the novel were turned into a single chapter, this would be a good return to form.
As it is, it’s an improvement on Until I Find You – but not a patch on A Prayer for Owen Meany and The World According to Garp and Hotel New Hampshire.
Or at least, the me who is reading this now thinks so. Because there is a niggling doubt in the back of my mind that it isn’t John Irving that has changed but me. Once upon a time, John Irving was one of my favourite writers. Somewhere, somehow, in the last half decade, things have changed. It could be that what I once found endearing, now gets in the way. Perhaps this is what happens when you have kids. You lose patience with peregrination. If, for example, you’ve read a lot of John Irvings – if you’ve read a lot of John Irvings and Until I Find You, and you liked Until I Find You – then by all means feel free to ignore me. It could be I’m just in the wrong.
Any Cop?: For me, an okay John Irving novel, better than Until I Find You, not as good as the best.