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John Irving’s Rich, Lyrical ‘Last Night in Twisted River’

Bob Dylan song inspires story of cook in the great north woods

Nov. 23, 2009
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In a logging community in the north woods of New England—a dismal, uninviting camp on the banks of Twisted River—a widowed cook works in the dining lodge, concocting the Italian dishes (Sicilian, really) that have won him a certain level of respect from the workers. Here in the cookhouse, he watches over his 12-year-old son, Daniel, a cautious, curious child who has seen little outside the often cruel way of life in the logging camps. Together with his old friend, Ketchum—a burly, crass and fiercely loyal man—and an American Indian named Jane, the cook and his son endure the harsh conditions of Twisted River, talking about a time when they will leave but never really taking the necessary steps…until, that is, the violent events of one night—their last night in Twisted River—force them to flee, pursued by the malicious local sheriff. Over the span of five decades, the cook and his son move from place to place, assuming new identities and abandoning their lives, aided only by their increasingly libertarian friend Ketchum. 

In a June 2009 interview with Sam Tanenhaus, editor of TheNew York Times Book Review, novelist John Irving revealed an early inspiration for Last Night in TwistedRiver (Random House): a stanza from that old Bob Dylan song, “Tangled Up in Blue”—“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.” In that moment, the last sentence of Last Night in Twisted River came to him, as his last sentences and final chapters always do—“fixed like a piece of music that you are writing toward.”

Irving’s books are long, layered and epic in scope, often spanning generations and decades, with hosts of characters marching in and out without a hint of significance until, at pivotal moments, they alter the course of the story. Last Night in Twisted River is no exception; at nearly 600 pages, it requires a serious investment of time and thought. Irving has a gift for saturating his stories with the types of seemingly routine details that become so obviously important in future events that the entire experience of reading is simultaneously reflective and surprising. In Last Night in Twisted River, perhaps more so than in his other novels, sudden shifts in chronology reveal the outcome of present or future events, or the end of relationships that are just beginning, often leaving the reader bereft of hope for the characters’ futures. The once elegant composition suddenly becomes a cacophony of mangled situations. This conscious foreshadowing is one of Irving’s strongest literary devices in the book. Armed with knowledge about the plot, readers are forced to focus on elements other than the story line: Daniel’s need to write, the cook’s selfless devotion to his family, and that ever-present theme in Irving’s work, the fear of losing the ones we love.

Longtime Irving fans may find the autobiographical traces of Irving in Daniel’s character dizzying, even frustrating at times. What does it mean? What is he telling us about himself? Can we really know Irving through his work? And the throwbacks to Irving’s earlier work are astonishingly clear. Yes, there is a bear. There is high-school wrestling at a prestigious boys’ school. A small hospital in Maine that performs abortions. There is a character incensed by the war in Vietnam (and, later, the actions and policies of the Bush administration). There are young men—boys, really—discovering and exploring their sexuality. And, of course, there is the father consumed by his need to protect his son. But, as always with Irving, things aren’t exactly as they seem, and part of the great pleasure of reading his books, and Last Night in Twisted River, particularly, is finding out why.

The stories we hear as children take on new meaning in the context of adulthood—a bear isn’t really a bear, a home isn’t always a refuge and the people we think we know best harbor their own secrets. Last Night in Twisted River is darkly comedic and tediously rich, from its dramatic first sentence to its lyrical ending—one of Irving’s most satisfying dénouements.

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