John Irving has been putting out doorstop-sized family sagas for over forty years now. After hitting his stride with his fourth novel The World According To Garp, which told the life story of a writer born in unconventional circumstances, he peaked in the 1980s with two widely admired books, The Cider House Rules and A Prayer For Owen Meany, both of which kept narrative plates spinning for decades before resolving in deeply satisfying fashion.
Since then he’s struggled to match the artistic success of these gems, but he’s usually been worth reading. A Widow For One Year is probably the best of his more recent novels, possibly because it tightened the focus a bit and concentrated on specific incidents within the life of its protagonist rather than telling a whole cradle-to-grave story as his other books tend to do.
Last Night In Twisted River sits squarely within Irving’s comfort zone, and regular readers will be either comforted or exasperated by the familiarity of the themes and motifs. The plot concerns a cook and his son who are forced to flee from a remote logging community in New England after an unfortunate incident, and spend the rest of their years moving from town to town trying to avoid a vengeful police constable. The son, unsurprisingly for an Irving character, becomes a writer and gets into various complicated personal relationships. The book starts in the early 1950s and unfolds over the next fifty years or so, with topical news stories giving some background flavour here and there. There’s a lot of stuff about cooking, a lot about writing, a fair bit about household organisation, and working down the checklist, we also get bears, wrestling, grotesque domestic tragedies and unorthodox inter-generational romances. This book is not any kind of departure for Irving.
It is however, perfectly readable and stylishly written, with enough texture and detail provided for one to be able to disregard the nagging feeling that you’ve been this way before. The regular changes in locale provide variety, and the characters are well-drawn, with only the constable lacking credibility (on the one hand he’s dull and stupid, on the other he’s tenacious enough to pursue a grudge for most of his life). The stand-out character is the grizzled logger Ketchum, a sweary and obstinate woodsman who dedicates himself to providing long-distance protection for his two friends – Irving has great fun with him, and the reader does too. The book’s as carefully and minutely plotted as you’d expect from this author, who rather generously provides a short essay at the back detailing his approach to novel-writing.
So, if you like this kind of thing, you’ll like this kind of thing. But if you’re new to John Irving, you’re better off starting with Cider House or Owen Meany, in which this style seemed significantly fresher.