Last Night in Twisted River by John Irving

Last Night Twisted RiverA friend loaned me this book with an enthusiastic recommendation. Although many people love, love, love John Irving, I’m not one of them. Years ago I read The World According to Garp and there are two distasteful scenes from that novel that still won’t leave my head. Since Last Night in Twisted River was so highly recommended by someone I trust, I thought I’d give it a try. I can’t get it out of my head, but for good reasons.

Irving is a great storyteller and this story is multigenerational, about a father-son relationship. It’s complicated, so bear with me while I try to explain at least part of the setup. The story opens in a logging camp in Coos County, New Hampshire, where Danny Baciagalupo and his Dad, Dominic, live in the cookhouse. Dominic cooks for the loggers. Danny’s beautiful mother, who died when Danny was young, haunts the story and all the characters. Irving repeatedly cycles back to the details of that fatal event and its consequences. There’s also a cast-iron skillet that hangs on the wall, and like the proverbial gun on the mantelpiece, it, too comes back to haunt the characters.

The logging camp alongside the river is a rough and dangerous place. Loggers get sucked into the swift current when they’re shifting logs downstream to the sawmill. Danny lives in fear of the river and the violence of the men who work in and around it. As he grows up in this harsh and unforgiving place, Danny tries to make sense of the relationships among the adults around him. The Native American women who help his father cook know more than they will tell him; they think  it’s for Danny’s own good that he’s kept in the dark. But it’s in the dark that a terrible accident happens and Danny and Dominic run from Coos River to save their lives. They move around over the next several decades for safety, but eventually there’s a return to the logging camp for closure, both for Danny and the reader.

Irving’s descriptions, especially of the logging camp, are so vivid that I could feel the cold in my teeth as I was reading. I wasn’t entirely happy with the way he writes the women (that was my problem with Garp) but it’s a great tale. There are other memorable characters that populate the story, but I’ll leave it to you to meet them. It kept me on the edge of my seat at times, hoping that things would come out right, that Danny and Dominic would have some peace. It’s an absorbing tale to sink into in a comfortable chair on a rainy day with something hot to drink and a piece of good chocolate!

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