John Irving’s books need to be savoured , read at the right time when you know you will have long periods of un interrupted reading. I like the fact that they are big books both physically (anything less than 600 pages and I would feel a bit cheated as happened with Widow for a Year) and in the saga sense of the journeys he takes his characters on.
With that in mind I tend to save his books up for holidays , which can be a test of will power as his books can sit on the to read pile for 6 months or more. It is a measure of how much I like him as an author that I want to link the memory of his books to a place and a time. Son of the Circus means Dubai with 5 friends , Until I Find You Cape town for a wedding, A Prayer For Owen Meany inter railing around Italy.
Two weeks in Devon gave me the chance to finally start Last Night on Twisted River a reassuring 700+ pages epic.
I can’t help but find comfort in the fact that Last Night on Twisted River could only be a John Irving novel, there is a farting dog, bears, death of loved ones and at its core the relationship between a parent and a child.
All this helps me overcome the fact that Irving succumbs to one of my pet hates , a writer making their main character a writer and spending time writing about writing.
The story starts in a Nova Scotia logging community where we meet the town’s cook and his son Danny as well as typical Irving characters such as Six Pack Pam ,Injun Jane and most importantly Ketchum a throwback frontiersman. As ever there are family secrets this time around the death of Danny's mother and what really happened on the night she fell through the ice. Small details early on are echoes of major plot drivers to come later, the scar on Ketchums’ head his hatred of his own left hand. Nobody does the tricky skill of foreshadowing better
The book start to really get going when Danny accidently kills the local sheriffs girlfriend, mistaking her for a bear in a scene that shows Irvings skill at making the farcical and ridiculous seem perfectly acceptable and natural.
Danny and his father have to, with Ketchum’s help, flee twisted river and so begins a 50 year chase ,as they struggle to stay ahead of the sheriff, that takes in a naked sky diver, the art of cooking, a deathly blue Pontiac, sex, births marriages with death continually casting its shadow.
Even the fact that Danny grows up to be a successful writer fits with the plot although there are a couple of name drop walk on parts that are a bit cringe worthy. It is as if using real people breaks the spell that Irving weaves around his characters
There is always a sense of sadness when I finish an Irving novel as I know it could be another 5 years until the next one. This time the feeling is more acute as at the back of the is a list of his other novels and the years that they were released and it suddenly hits me that there might not be that many more. I’ve searched hard for someone who comes near and often been disappointed when a reviewer describes a book as “like John Irving”. I struggle to think of a book especially by a british writer to come close .. maybe Iain Banks’ Crow Road.
Nobody does the tragic and the comedy, the big themes and the personal journeys or simply tells a story as well and ,whilst not his best, and unlikely to win a new readership, Last Night on Twisted river is head and shoulders a majority of other fiction published.You can buy Last Night on Twisted River here