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June 24, 2010

It has been said that any artist just tells the same story over and over, constantly refining it. This may be more literally true with John Irving.

“It is a world of accidents,” Dominic Baciagalupo, the cook at the center of this novel, tells his son Danny. Irving’s world, and the world in Twisted River certainly is. It starts with an accident in a logging camp in the small northern town of Twisted River. A young boy, a runaway who has made his way to the camp, falls through the logs and into the river where he drowns. This is followed by another accident, this one a vintage Irving blend of sex, violence and slapstick comedy. It’s this second accident that propels the novel forward, forcing Dominic and Danny to flee Twisted River to escape the wrath of the drunk, nasty town constable.

They leave behind their gruff, cranky logger friend, Ketchum, who remains a part of their life (and adds much color to the novel), sending news from Twisted River—news that often uproots them again from wherever they happen to be, and sends them on to the next town. They live in Iowa City, Toronto, Boston, and a couple other New England towns.

Twisted River has more of a driving plot than some of Irving’s other books, which tend to meander. There is an impending (if at times overemphasized) sense of danger and a definite villain in this one. But I feel like Irving missed a little bit on the villain. Irving describes Carl as evil, but strangely doesn’t give any of the specific anecdotes that show just how evil he is until it’s irrelevant.

And because Dominic and Danny move around so much, there’s a repetition in the plot that gets a bit tiresome—we meet a new cast of characters at a new restaurant with a new name and a new menu in a new town repeatedly, without all that much of it playing into the story.

But here’s my biggest hang-up with this novel: if you’ve read all of Irving’s other stuff (which I have), there’s a disappointing amount of overlap in themes, locations, motifs and character types. Don’t get me wrong, I like the Irving world, but this book just feels like a reshuffling of it. In fact, there’s a chart on the John Irving Wikipedia page that outlines some of his most common recurring themes.

Okay, so prostitutes and Vienna are absent from Twisted River, but to the list I could add hands (a la Owen Meany and The Fourth Hand), identity (Garp and Son of the Circus), violence/comedy during sex (Garp, A Widow For One Year) and some kind of sexual deviation (most of his books, though relatively mild in Twisted River).

Then there’s the self-referential autobiographical element that Irving has explored before—writing about writers whose lives are like his own. But in Twisted River, he makes such a point of saying that Danny, a successful novelist, resents how the press makes all of his novels out to be autobiographical—something that Irving has stated in interviews—that he creates an amusing loop, as if he’s mocking the whole discussion by making it so convoluted. Among the biographical/fictional stuff, though, there is a part that feels conspicuously biographical, as if Irving’s deliberately using the novel as a platform for his personal views. That comes post September 11, 2001, when Danny moves from the United States to Toronto (Irving lives part-time in Toronto). Irving gets into the politics of the move, the criticism of Danny and Danny’s criticism of the ensuing Iraq war, which all feels a bit out of place.

But for me, it’s this modern, adult writer’s life that is most interesting and enchanting, full of descriptions of writing rooms, of dealings with publishers and movie studios and critics. I loved the young life of other Irving characters (Owen Meany and Homer Wells are fantastic); young Danny doesn’t quite stack up. But college age and, even better, mature Danny holds up well against the adult writer characters in Until I Find You and A Widow for One Year (though maybe not as wonderful as Garp).

Not to be overlooked, Twisted River shares with Irving’s other novels: well-drawn characters, an unpredictable plot and meticulous research. Irving remains a master story-builder and one of the greatest living American novelists. Two of his novels are on my list of favorite. And Twisted River is a novel that, like the rest of the Irving canon, feels very human and very big.

Comparing Twisted River to Irving’s other books might not be the best way to judge it, but the similarities definitely call for the comparison. As a standalone book, it is solid. There are some moments, the key scenes, that really stay with you and remain vivid long after a first reading. But I will say this: if you haven’t read any other Irving books, there are better. And if you have read all the other Irving books, this one might feel pretty familiar.

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