The title drew me to John Irving’s latest more than anything else. That and the fact that a friend recently went to see him at an appearance I suppose was connected to the novel’s coming out tour. I’ve never been an Irving fan, thought Garp bloated and self-indulgent (My friend, by contrast, couldn’t put it down, she much more in tune with both general literary and popular assessment than I.), saw and liked (not loved) the film of Cider House Rules, but never read the book. But hell, it’s been a long time, and both the world and I have changed, and what a great title, so why not give Twisted River a go? Especially at $9.99 from the Costco bargain table.
The novel’s opening simultaneously pulled me in and put me off: “The young Canadian, who could not have been more than fifteen, had hesitated too long. For a frozen moment, his feet had stopped moving on the floating logs in the basin above the river bend; he’d slipped entirely underwater before anyone could grab his outstretched hand.” What drew me in was the immediacy of this in media res moment, the cinematic vividness of the moment, the magnitude of the calamity, the suspense of what was going to happen under those logs. What put me off was the tense. Why past-perfect instead of simple past? It placed an extra, crucial, step of distance between me and the experience. Maybe it makes no never mind to most, but to me the difference between “The young Canadian… had hesitated too long” and “The young Canadian hesitated too long” is the difference between watching a scene close up in clear focus and watching it from a distance or from behind a scrim. That attraction-repulsion pattern continued for me throughout this epic narrative which spans three generations, more than sixty years, thousands of miles, and includes an army of characters to rival Tolstoy. Well, not quite that, I suppose.
We begin in 1954 in a New Hampshire logging camp located, of course, on Twisted River. Irving gives us a superb and captivating cast in the little community that exists to support and serve the lumbering operations. At the center are the camp cook and his son. The cook is a single parent due to events that emerge (and artfully keep re-emerging in different form and with new information) clear to the end of the book. We spend a lot of time in the kitchen–in many kitchens as the story continues through the decades–and we are treated to intimate details of the contents and process of food prep for our hearty crew of lumberjacks as well as the other customer we encounter during ensuing years. Irving has obviously done a lot of research in the culinary area and I suspect is a bit of a foodie himself, sometimes cluttering rather than enhancing his story with the extent of his analyses of all those recipes–the shopping, transporting, storing, chopping, slicing, reduction, marinating, simmering, kneading, baking, frying, roasting serving…see what I mean? Still, there are pages of mouth-watering passages worthy of, say, Thomas Wolfe.
What happens in the cookhouse on that river is Irving at the top of his game, worthy of any writer at the top of his game. It’s both comic catastrophic–hard to pull that off, but he does it. And it sets the stage for the rest of the book. The word “last” gets its double-entendre as both “previous” and “final” and haunts all the central characters in both senses, driving all other action before it. I bought about 90% of the necessity with which Irving invests his characters’ reaction to the incident, but am willing to concede that my response is perhaps overcritical. Besides, if Cookie and Daniel don’t do what they do, the rest of the book can’t happen.
During the long odyssey that results from incident, the son turns into a writer. Irving carefully tracks the evolution of the boy’s consciousness, his response to the world and events around him that mark him as a human of letters, and we follow his career from grade-school scribbler to renowned author. Irving manages to include a lot of material here about the world of successful writers–where the ideas come from, how life becomes transmuted into art, how the media responds to how life becomes transmuted into art, how the business end of things works, punctuation and narrator POV controversies. [Irving himself, he declares in his afterword, likes being a nineteenth century omniscient narrator in a post-modern literary world. Although he does give us a bit of a post modern turn here. Twisted River is sometimes about a writer writing a book about writing the book you’re reading.] And it’s in much of this area (like the cooking) that my response to Twisted River matches my response to Garp. Irving seems to have little discrimination between what moves the book and what is idle anecdote and expansive description. We spend a lot of time in Iowa City, the famous writers’ workshop, for example. We meet some famous authors. We see what it’s like to nurture beginning novelists. We see our writer and his dad go through some affairs. But nearly all the characters disappear, have little influence on either the central cast or the events, and all the emotion and attachment we as readers have invested in these people seems wasted. Trust disappears then, doesn’t it? If anyone new enters the picture, should we bother to get to know them or not?
Furthermore, the threat that keeps father and son on the move, dissipates often, and with it the dramatic tension. We’re brought close to climaxes which simply dissolve, not because they logically would, but because it the story might have to stop and Irving has another twenty years or so to take us through before bringing things to a head.
All of this is the more disappointing because there is so much in Twisted River that is first rate. Hundreds of pages of exciting, passionate, storytelling and a rich wonder of characters. Trim a couple of hundred pages and ten or twenty of those characters, and you’d have yourself a book I’d admire completely. As it is, I kept wondering when in the world Irving was going to stop his compulsive typing. I caught myself skipping huge chunks. I’m glad somebody stopped him, though. he might be on page fifteen hundred by now and the world would not have been treated to all the great stuff that lies between these covers. My little man, as you can see, is of two opinions, depending which page he’s on.