John Irving did not actually attend his induction into the National Wrestling Hall of Fame in Stillwater, Oklahoma, some 15 years ago. But now he wishes he had. “I regret it,” Irving admits during a call to his hotel room in San Francisco, where he has come to dine with Bay Area booksellers prior to the publication of his exuberantly inventive 12th novel, Last Night in Twisted River. “There have always been these two parts of my life, and they don’t overlap very easily. My wrestling friends are not very easily mixed with my writing friends, and vice versa. But it’s an honor that meant a great deal to me because that sport was such a huge part of my life,” says Irving, who competed in wrestling in high school and college.
Writing and wrestling may not mix in Irving’s real life, but the tension between the two worlds—the intensely physical world of wrestling and the inward, reflective world of a writer’s imagination—has been a powerful source of that exciting blend of comedy and tragedy that is one of the hallmarks of his best fiction. Irving’s breakthrough novel, The World According to Garp, is a case in point. So, in a way, is his newest novel.
Last Night in Twisted River takes place first in the physically dangerous, working-class world of New England logging camps, and then, a bit later, in the physically exhausting kitchens of the Italian restaurants of Boston’s North End. These places comprise a world that somewhat unexpectedly produces a young novelist whose later career bears remarkable similarities to Irving’s own.
This new novel, whose pages contain some of the most entertaining and intellectually playful storytelling of Irving’s career, opens in 1954 in a logging camp in northern New Hampshire during one of the last river drives, just as logging roads and logging trucks are beginning to supplant river transport as a way of moving logs out of the forest to downstream lumber mills. Dominic Baciagalupo (“Cookie”), the camp cook, and his 12-year-old son Danny, the future novelist, are in a sort of emotional holding pattern after the drowning death of Dominic’s wife (and the boy’s mother).
Then through one of those tragicomic accidents so typical of Irving’s fiction, father and son become fugitives from a relentless deputy sheriff and spend the next 50 years in hiding, often in plain sight. During their time on the run, they change identities—the father goes from cook to chef and the son raises a family and becomes a best-selling writer.
“One of the things I like about the structure of the fugitive story,” Irving says, “is that from the violence that begins part one, you know what is going to happen. There’s going to be a shootout. It’s inevitable. It’s just a question of how and when. I like how that satisfies something I’ve always liked to do with readers, which is to allow readers to anticipate where the story is going—almost. I want the reader to say, ‘Oh, I know what is going to happen. I see this coming.’ But they don’t quite see everything.”
Among the many items that readers familiar with Irving’s previous novels will anticipate, but not necessarily accurately predict, are the electric profusion of subplots and plot twists; the large and idiosyncratic cast of characters; and the bravura demonstrations of audacious storytelling skill in chapters like “In Media Res,” wherein Irving offers a dizzying and delightful example of jumping right into the middle of his story and telling it from both ends and the middle.
That particular chapter, Irving advises, “is a labyrinth. You have to walk your way very slowly through it. . . . Like the novels I most like to read, this is one in which you know you’ve got to pay attention.”
A careful reading of Last Night in Twisted River turns out to be richly rewarding, for this multilayered novel is, in part, an emotionally resonant exploration of 50 years of American life and, in a way, of Irving’s own life as a writer.
“I like the part of this novel that is about a writer’s process,” Irving says. “I’ve written about it before, but I feel I’ve never written about it as well or as comprehensively. I think I’ve woven the reasons for Danny becoming the kind of writer he is into the story of what happens to him.”
And what about the fact that Danny’s career and attitudes—including his objection to readers who think his fictional works are merely veiled autobiography—resemble Irving’s own?
“I’m having fun with that,” Irving says. “Like Danny, I went through years and years of being asked if I was writing autobiographical fiction, the assumption being that I was. But I wasn’t. My earliest novels were entirely made up. My later novels have become more autobiographical. I’m a very slow processor, and those things that had an impact on me when I was a child or an adolescent, I did not write about when I was in my 20s, my 30s or my 40s. But I have written more about my childhood and adolescence lately—over the age of 60. One reason for that is if you let enough time pass, your memory is no longer the tyrant it once was. You can afford to be playful and take liberties and invent better stuff.”
Irving pauses and adds, “When you repeatedly write about things that have never happened to you, but which you hope don’t, when you write about things you fear, you are also being, at least psychologically, autobiographical. In how many of my novels is a child lost? But I have never lost one, thank God. I have three children and I think about it every day—as any parent with an imagination does. You think that isn’t autobiographical? Of course it is. What is thought to be autobiographical in fiction is so narrowly defined and is often trivial. Whereas the things that truly obsess a writer, that a writer even unconsciously goes back to again and again, those things are real and they are autobiographical—whether they happened or not.”
So, call Last Night in Twisted River part 12 in the psychological autobiography of one-time wrestler John Irving, if you like. Better yet, call it a darn good novel and a delight to read.
Alden Mudge writes from San Francisco.
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