BLUEPRINT FOR A NOVEL
Last Night In Twisted River by John Irving
This second most recent novel from John Irving becomes more interesting as one reads along until the end is reached and all is revealed–or so one might think. I am a fan and have read a good number of his books, always twisting and turning stories with a great reveal towards the end. The riveting start of a young man drowning during a log drive on a wild river in northern NH sets the stage. Ketchum and Dominic witness this accident and get Angelu’s body out of the river.
The story becomes a little less spellbinding as the story unfolds and the author seems to meander off into all directions. This novel is not for the reader who wants a quick read, but it’s a book suitable for those more invested in reading: it is a 565 pages thick tome. It completely proved worth my while to continue and to give the story time to unfold.
I got slowly drawn into the lives of several characters: father Dominic Baciagalupo from Boston (Italian descent), who needs to change his name several times to stay ahead of the cop, Carl, who is out to kill him; Dominic’s son Daniel, and his son, Joe, become central to the novel. Dominic (AKA Cookie) changes his name to Tony Angel. Daniel then becomes Danny Angel, a suitable name for his budding career as an author and he becomes a famous, widely published and admired author. Danny’s dad stays active throughout his life as a chef in various restaurants throughout their moves together in the US and later in Canada, where the family fled to avoid Carl and his gun. Through the side stories we get to know the characters’ personalities and their emotional inner worlds.
Then the character of the writer, Danny, becomes the voice telling the stories: a story within the story. He becomes the central person and we get the idea this book is autobiographical. I checked a few facts and although the tale is NOT autobiographical, is has elements, such as location, that are facts. However, the inner reasoning of the author, might or might not be autobiographical. I heard Irving explain somewhere in a video clip that he did not literally lose his son, but in a way he did and there was grieving involved. Whatever elements might be taken from Irving’s real life, this story feels like it is real.
John Irving who will be 71 this year, must have loved and then lost, adding his life experiences to his writing, making the novel feel very authentic. As we get older, our life’s meaning is revealed to us: we ourselves give it meaning, as we cannot live with senseless death and lost loves, lost simply by our own stupidity or lack of action.
Redemption must come for each of us in finding the courage to go on living in the face of disaster, whether it is meta disaster as the 9-11 terrorist attacks in the US, or the personal tragedy of losing one’s child.
This novel shows how the central character is looking back on his life and highlights his struggles with finding meaning after losing those dearest people, and he still survived. This novel is about redemption.
The special part for me in this novel as an author is how the author described the process and dynamics of writing, how to attack and solve the specific problems of putting thoughts and feelings from one’s heart and head into a written story. It was very revealing, unless the author has made up that process of writing as well. If so, I see that the methods described can work, feel authentic, and can be used by new authors as a blue print for novel writing.
I found it as an immigrant Canadian also quite rewarding reading of the protagonist’s feelings, about the loss of identity, in some ways, and the struggle to develop an integrated identity that evolves after years of living somewhere else, away from one’s home country.
The author touches on some politics as well. I cannot imagine what it must be like for an American (the protagonist, Daniel) who left the country for other than political reasons–a crazy person was out to kill him–to reconcile the US politics and state of affairs in the last decades with his new identity as a resident of a more tolerant, less aggressive and less nationalistic, and more peaceful nation. I could imagine a US citizen living elsewhere might be embarrassed for its nation, especially before Obama came on the scene. This novel was first published in 2009, so it will be interesting to see what the author will say in his new novel about his home country politics. It will also be interesting to watch and see what Obama’s administration can actually accomplish.
I have visited the area around Pointe au Baril in the summer, and just can imagine the scene in which the ending of the novel is set. I used to live on the edge of a large lake in the north of Canada (Alberta) and the feeling of isolation when the view is whited out by a snow storm is overwhelming and magnificent. Irving’s settings are symbolically significant and always exotic.
I can strongly recommend this novel.