Irving spins a tall tale about the randomness of life


By John Irving

554 pages

Random House, $28

"Last Night in Twisted River" showcases all of John Irving's biggest liabilities as a writer: a tricked-up, gimmicky plot; cartoony characters; absurd contrivances; cheesy sentimentality; and a thoroughly preposterous ending.

And yet, at the same time, it evolves into a deeply felt and often moving story - a story that with some diligent editing might have ranked right up there with "The World According to Garp" (1978) and "A Widow for One Year" (1998) as one of Irving's more powerful works.

The novel, like so many of the author's tales, is concerned with fathers and sons, with the fear of not being able to protect loved ones, with loss and pain and grief, and with a writer's efforts to come to terms with these real-life perils by running them through the clattering word processor of his imagination. It deals with the emotional and psychological changes that come with the passage of time.

And it is studded, annoyingly, with the same odd little leitmotifs that run through many of the author's novels like obsessive-compulsive tics, including a flatulent dog; a severed left hand; a series of older, amorous women; and of course, a motley assortment of bears.

Spanning some five decades, this novel moves around the eastern half of America and parts of Canada with a plot that is needlessly garlanded with all sorts of gothic tinsel, pointless digressions, portentous asides and cute Vonnegut-like homilies.

What seizes the reader's attention and moves the story forward are two things: the keenly observed and affecting relationship between an appealing, melancholy cook named Dominic Baciagalupo and his 12-year-old son, Danny, and their seriocomic efforts to escape the wrath of an implacable cop known as Constable Carl, who bears more than a passing resemblance to Victor Hugo's obsessive Inspector Javert in "Les Miserables."

Over the years, Dom's fears for Danny give way to Danny's fears for his father - fears that Irving persuades the reader to share, building suspense that drives the narrative over the many lumps and bumps in the story line.

Irving has always had a taste for grotesque deaths and grisly accidents described in grand Guignolesque detail, and "Twisted River" is no exception. Danny has killed his beloved baby sitter and his dad's secret mistress, Jane, by hitting her over the head with an iron skillet while she is having sex with his father. We're told that Danny mistook her for a bear - a bear! - that was assaulting his father.

Jane, by coincidence - and there are lots and lots of coincidences in this novel - also happens to be the girlfriend of Constable Carl, the local law officer in their small New Hampshire town, and rather than try to explain how the naked woman came to be killed in Dom's bed, the Baciagalupos leave the small New Hamphire logging town they have called home and go on the lam.

They will keep on running for several decades, even as Danny grows up to become a famous novelist, whose writing, not unlike his creator's, is known for its fairy-tale exaggerations and melodramatic worst-case scenarios.

Over the years, the Baciagalupos encounter the usual Irving-esque assortment of oddball characters. There is a huge, Amazonian skydiver known as Lady Sky, who parachutes naked into a pigpen; a loco writing student with two vicious dogs that attack Danny; Katie, Danny's wife (and the mother of his son, Joe), who bears the children of a succession of men in order to get them deferments from serving in Vietnam; Dominic's best friend, Ketchum, a foul-mouthed logger with a heart of gold; and Ketchum's sometime girlfriend, Six-Pack Pam, a Bunyonesque dame with a huge appetite for beer.

To build narrative tension while folding stories within stories, Irving hops and skips through time, frequently backing and filling in order to stingily deal out crucial details to the reader. As the Baciagalupos move from New Hampshire to Boston to Iowa, Vermont and Toronto, the reader gradually pieces together the sequential chapters in Dominic's and Danny's lives, and the ways in which one decision here or there has a domino effect on all those they love.

Some of his inventions - like a murderous blue car that appears to have zeroed in on Danny's son - are ludicrous at first glance, but the reader gradually comes to understand that they are writerly metaphors for the precarious nature of life in "a world of accidents," that the volume we hold in our hands is, in fact, the creation of Danny, who is trying to make sense of the unlikely trajectory of his life through the act of writing.

In this respect, "Last Night in Twisted River" emerges not just as a tall tale, but also as an entertaining, if messy and long-winded, commentary on the fiction-making process itself.