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Last Night in Twisted River by John Irving

Last Night in Twisted River (2009)

by John Irving

Other authors: Halvor Kristiansen (Translator)

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This is a generational novel that tracks the impact of one foolish accident in the life of a man and his young son. Dominic is the cook for a logging camp. His young son Danny has grown up surrounded by food and stories about his deceased mother.

One night Danny is awakened by the sound of his father and one of the kitchen staff making love. Misunderstanding the situation, Danny thinks his father is being attacked and strikes the woman with a cast iron pan. The accidental death of the kitchen dish-washer will send the two men into hiding for decades. The truth of what happens at twisted river will haunt them, while it simultaneously shapes their lives in ways as yet unanticipated. ( )
  Juva | Apr 7, 2015 |
Bears make it into the story naturally, but the book drags on and on. It's also a novel about a novelist writing a novel and reflecting on how auto-biographical bits are transformed to appear in novels. Of course there are parallels between the protagonist and Irving's life -- all this self-reference is too clever by half. ( )
  Tacoma.Red | Mar 1, 2015 |
Everyone needs one friend like Ketchum. ( )
  dele2451 | Jan 4, 2015 |
Lots of unnecessary detail in a book that goes on and on. One of the books by Mr Irving equal parts funny and tragic and laughing at
things that at a distance aren't that funny. ( )
  charlie68 | Oct 5, 2014 |
I did not care that much for John Irving’s twelfth novel, Last Night in Twisted River, published in 2009. I considered returning the book to the public library several times but did eventually read all of its 554 pages. It is not that I believe that Mr. Irving is an inferior writer. He definitely is not. Several wonderfully narrated scenes engaged my emotions. Non-essential detail and believability issues about some of the actions of some of the novel’s characters are my chief criticisms.

The novel starts well. Three people quickly emerge as the story’s most important characters. In 1954 Dominic Baciagalupo is a logging and sawmill settlement cook in northern New Hampshire. He is raising his twelve-year-old son Daniel, his wife Rosie having died when Daniel was two. Ketchum is a veteran logger and close friend of Dominic. A fifteen-year-old log roller who answers to the name of “Angel,” who had worked in Dominic’s kitchen, and of whom Ketchum is protective, falls under logs being freed from a river logjam. Swept away underneath the logs by a swift current, he drowns. Ketchum plans to meet Dominic at Dead Woman Dam, where they believe Angel’s body will be found. We discover that the dead woman in the name of the dam was Rosie, she having fallen through cracking ice ten years earlier while “do-si-do” dancing with Dominic and Ketchum, both of whom were drunk. They expect to find Angel’s body where they had found Rosie’s.

Dominic’s dishwasher, Injun Jane, relates to Daniel (“Danny”) the immediate aftermath of Rosie’s disappearance under the ice.

“'But she was gone that fast, Danny … And when we got back to the cookhouse, you were wide awake and screaming … I took it as a sign that you somehow knew your mom was gone. I couldn’t get you to stop crying—you or your father. Ketchum had got hold of a cleaver. He just stood in the kitchen with his left hand on a cutting board, holding the cleaver in his right hand.' Danny wondered why the left hand. Ketchum was right-handed. If you hated yourself, … wouldn’t you want to cut off your good hand?"

We find out that Dominic and Injun Jane, who is a very large woman, are lovers. We know that Jane lives with the local constable, Carl, a vicious bully and woman beater. In the late evening before Dominic and Ketchum are to meet at Dead Woman Dam, Daniel hears noises in his father’s bedroom. He peers inside. He believes he sees a bear astride his father, Jane’s unbraided long hair appearing to be fur. Danny grabs the eight ounce cast iron skillet that is hung inside the bedroom door, the skillet (Danny has been told) used by his father once to kill a bear that had entered the cook’s residence. He strikes Jane on her skull, instantly killing her. Dominic and Danny manage to transport Jane’s body to Carl’s apartment. They hope that, awakening from a drunken stupor and discovering her body, he will think he has killed her and will secretly bury her. Following Ketchum’s advice, Dominic and Danny leave for north Boston to connect with Angel’s relatives, they having discovered where he had lived prior to coming to Twisted River.

This segment of the novel, with all its back stories about Dominic, his mother, his wife Rosie, and Ketchum is excellent. The only quibble I had was the killing of Injun Jane. I very much liked her as a character. Secondly, even though the author strived to make the event credible, I had difficulty accepting that Danny would have mistaken Jane for a bear.

At this point we are 118 pages into the novel. The action of the remaining 436 pages occurs in five different geographic locations. Because Carl learns the truth about Jane’s death and is determined to kill them, Dominic and Danny must periodically relocate. It is 2005 when the novel ends, 51 years after Injun Jane’s death. Three threads are developed during these 436 pages: the evasion of Carl, the reader’s gradual comprehension of the reasons for Ketchum’s guilt, and Danny’s long journey to gain happiness. Dominic works as a cook at most of these locations, we meet a variety of minor characters that the author feels he must develop in detail, and Danny becomes a famous novelist. Much of the novel focuses on Danny’s real and perceived difficulties, which include the raising of a beloved son. Especially difficult for me to accept was that Danny would marry the despicable person that provides him his son. Danny’s story, and especially the novel’s ending (even though it is satisfying), is the least credible thread. Ketchum, driven by guilt and the need to protect Dominic and Danny, remains a central, intriguing character throughout.

The author is slow at reaching climatic events. The events are riveting, but the pace of the novel is annoyingly slow. The author uses too much space portraying unimportant characters such as Danny’s eighth grade English teacher (Why do we need to know that he attended strip tease shows?), Danny’s multiple lovers, and the kitchen personnel at the various restaurants where Dominic works. Prior to writing his novel, Mr. Irving interviewed numerous chefs and restaurateurs to learn about the preparation of different kinds of food. We encounter passages like the following.

"Mao’s version of oysters Rockefeller was topped with panko, Japanese bread crumbs, and Ah Go used grapeseed oil and shallots to make the mayonnaise for his crabcakes. (The crab was tossed in the Japanese bread crumbs with some chopped tarragon; the panko didn’t get soggy in the fridge, the way other bread crumbs did.)"

Illustrating a link between Danny’s fictional characters and his life experiences, Mr. Irving, I believe, gives too much information about Danny’s eight novels. Excessive detail to achieve authenticity risks killing a reader’s desire to read.

Mr. Irving did, however, strike the right balance in his use of resource information about logging. He makes believable the atypical characteristics of loggers and sawmill employees, and he relates effectively the dangerous work they perform -- a major accomplishment. This information, providing excellent context, helps us accept Ketchum as an authentic person. Without Ketchum, the novel is not worth reading. ( )
  HaroldTitus | Sep 27, 2014 |
Showing 1-5 of 98 (next | show all)
The coy hints of connections between the author and the narrator have been forced onto a plot that can’t accommodate them, and the fact that Danny is a famous novelist too often seems a mere contrivance, giving Irving a convenient opportunity to include rambling background information and to air his own ideas about writing. In his bid to make something “serious,” Irving has risked distracting readers from what otherwise could be a moving, cohesive story.
I thought I was heading for another “The Cider House Rules,” my personal favorite of his novels. But the full reading experience ended up being more like “A Widow for One Year,” where one outstanding section has to carry the weight of the whole book. And at 554 pages, that’s a lot to carry.
Irving playfully invents a story that’s as much about the pleasures of reading one of his novels as it is anything else, until it poignantly turns into a paean for a dying art and a plea for the idea of the story. This could all seem self-indulgent. Instead, it’s Irving’s best since the ’80s.
Irving's story is engrossing, and he gives us a satisfying assortment of fully realized characters: Carl, a cruel, ignorant police officer; Ketchum, a hard-drinking, violent logger who devotes himself to protecting the cook and his son and whose favorite exclamation is “Constipated Christ!”; Six-Pack Pam, whose name pretty much says it all; and Lady Sky, the aforementioned parachutist, who becomes the love of the cook's son's life.
Mr. Irving uses coincidences, cliffhanger chapter endings and other 19th-century novelistic devices to hook the reader, while at the same time orchestrating them to underscore the improbable, random nature of real life. Some of his inventions — like a murderous blue car that appears to have zeroed in on Danny’s son — are ludicrous at first glance, but the reader gradually comes to understand that they are writerly metaphors for the precarious nature of life in “a world of accidents.”

» Add other authors (14 possible)

Author nameRoleType of authorWork?Status
John Irvingprimary authorall editionsconfirmed
Kristiansen, HalvorTranslatorsecondary authorall editionsconfirmed
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"I had a job in the great north woods/ Working as a cook for a spell/ But I never did like it all that much/ And one day the ax just fell" -Bob Dylan, "Tangled Up in Blue
"For Everett-my pioneer, my hero"
First words
"The young Canadian, who could not have been more than fifteen, had hesitated too long."
Constipated Christ!
Don't get your balls crossed.
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(Click to show. Warning: May contain spoilers.)
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Book description
Une mustang bleue fantôme bleue , un chien héroïque , une ange atterrie dans la fange : le chef Irving nous réserve toutes les surprises de son art consommés dans un roman qui se dévore et se déguste jusqu'à la dernière page . Bombe glacée pour tout le monde au dessert .

In 1954, in the cookhouse of a logging and sawmill settlement in New Hampshire, an anxious twelve-year-old boy mistakes the local constable's girlfriend for a bear.  Both the boy and his father become fugitives, forced to run from Coos County--to Boston, to southern Vermont, to Toronto--while pursued by the implacable constable.  Their lone protector is a fiercly libertarian logger who befriends them.

In a story spanning five decades, Last Night in Twisted River depicts the recent half-century in the United States as "a living replica of Coos County, where lethal hatreds were generally permitted to run their course."
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In 1954, in the cookhouse of a logging and sawmill settlement in northern New Hampshire, an anxious twelve-year-old boy mistakes the local constable's girlfriend for a bear. Both the twelve-year-old and his father become fugitives, forced to run from Coos County-to Boston, to southern Vermont, to Toronto-pursued by the implacable constable. Their lone protector is a fiercely libertarian logger, once a river driver, who befriends them. A tale that spans five decades.… (more)

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