Sunday, January 16, 2011

Last Night in Twisted River: The $3 Book Review

I'm a slow reader. I can speed up for something really exciting, but for the most part, it's a slog. What's worse, I'm fussy about the words that go into my eyes when it comes to books (as opposed to, say, the words I encounter on Facebook). I can't abide preternaturally beautiful heroines, premises that could not survive outside New York City, teenage vampires, or science fiction that takes itself seriously. But one thing I can always count on enjoying is a John Irving novel. Yet this last one was a slow go.

I managed to finish Last Night in Twisted River, even though I didn't feel that it picked up steam until page 371 of its 554 pages.  It was a lot of Irving - so much so that it would have benefited from more rigorous editing.

It is the story of a father and son, beginning when the father is a logging camp cook and following their travels and travails through New Hampshire, Boston, Iowa and Toronto. As I grew up in a logging community, albeit on the other side of the country, the technical aspects of the logging activities rang true. The wacky accidents that propel the story are signature Irving, and elicit an occasional what-the-hell smile.

However, even with all 554 pages of words, I didn't feel like the characters were fleshed out enough to make me feel fond of them. It seemed like I was watching them move about a vast board game - not living their lives alongside of them. Throughout the coincidental mayhem that is a hallmark of Irving fiction, the only time I felt a tug at my heart was at the climax of the story, and even then, the sentiment was quickly diluted by a series of clumsy call-back references (as if he was afraid we hadn't been paying attention and had to be reminded how neatly he is pulling this all together).

By powering through this one, I'm pretty sure I've earned a master class certificate in the John Irving Writing Style.

The John Irving Writing Style requires the following literary features:
  • Start with sentence structure: combine every other sentence with a semicolon, then polish the corners until they fit together.
  • Add a bear. Even better, two bears. And maybe a case of mistaken identity involving a bear.
  • Include references to a lost hand - the grizzlier the hand lopping, the better (grizzly!).
  • All protagonists must go through trials, but YOUR protagonist's trials must be by comedically random and fluky accident.
  • Somebody has to go to Exeter Academy.
  • Now throw in some large women.
I liked Last Night, but I wouldn't reread it. If you haven't read any, here are my top five John Irving books as of today:

  1. A Prayer for Owen Meany
  2. The World According to Garp
  3. Setting Free the Bears
  4. Trying to Save Piggy Sneed
  5. A Son of the Circus
If you're curious about John Irving, and don't mind a few bears in your fiction, try one of these. You won't be sorry. Irving at his best can be life changing.


SeattleDan said...

Cider House Rules doesn't crack your top five list?

piglet said...

No bears. :-)

I know. I'm a little surprised, too. But it wasn't as memorable to me as the first five. In fact, if I were to list 6, the next might be Hotel New Hampshire. Or maybe I need to read it again. It came out when Dean was a baby. Probably didn't devote much attention to it.