Saturday, February 5, 2011

Last Night in Twisted River

by John Irving


 In a story spanning 5 decades, Last Night in Twisted River, depicts the recent half-century in the US as 'a living replica of Coos Country, where lethal hatreds were generally permitted to run their course.' From the novel's taut opening sentence to it's elegiac final chapter, Last Night in Twisted River is written with the historical authenticity and emotional  authority of The Cider House Rules and A Prayer for Owen Meany. It is also as violent and disturbing a story as The World according to Garp. 
In 1954, in the cookhouse of a logging and sawmill settlement in northern New Hampshire, an anxious twelve-year-old mistakes the local constable's girlfriend for a bear. Both the twelve-year-old and his father become fugitives, forced to run from Coos County to Boston, to southern Vermont, to Toronto, pursued by the implacable constable. Their lone protector is a fiercely libertarian logger, once a river driver, who befriends them.

This is what the back of the book says..

And this is what I say..(SPOILERS!!!!)

The story revolves around 2 persons.. Danny and Dominic Baciagalupo (which means Kiss of the Wolf in Italian, by the way).

The story opens with a tragic loss, a young boy drowned while doing a river drive of logs to the neighbouring saw and paper mills in New Hampshire. He disappeared between the logs and never came up again. Twisted river, the river he drowned in, the river many men drowned in, is the home of rough, out of the country men who earn their living in a most dangerous way.

Dominic Baciagalupo, the local chef at the cookhouse, (although he calls himself a cook, not a chef) provides them with local and Italian cuisine. He lost his wife a couple of years back and is going through life with his only son, 12year old Danny, and his best friend, Ketchum (no first name basis, though). Ketchum is a river driver, and he felt protective of the young boy perished in the river, and blames himself for letting him do the work, while he was still green behind the ears.

Both grown men are still at mourning for Rosie, Dominic's wife and Ketchum's lover (this fact is revealed later on). Danny was too young to remember her, but keeps pictures of her pressed flat between her books. Because of the weird atmosphere of this rural out of the way town and the two most important men in his life, Danny grows up becoming anxious and easily afraid.

One night, with the regular coming and going disturbed, he mistakes his father's secret lover for a bear and kills her with an 8-inch skillet. He recognizes her, just before she tumbles lifeless on the floor. The reason for the mistaken identity lies in the fact that his father and Ketchum told him a tale of Dominic chasing away a bear by hitting it upside the head with the same skillet, that hung ceremoniously in the cook's bedroom. In truth, the bear in question was actually Ketchum, who walked into the cookhouse on the night Rosie, Dominic's wife, confessed her affaire.

But with his lover dead on the floor, a woman also tied to the local constable, who is as much vengeful as he is cunning and cruel and his son the culprit, the cook is forced to take steps to ensure they both can escape in time. He hides the body in a most peculiar place, the constable's kitchen, because of the constable's reputation with booze and violence towards women. He hopes the constable will think he killed his girlfriend, even with not remembering it. This gives the cook and his son enough time to escape and hide somewhere entirely else.

They decide to go to Boston, where both the cook's mother and wife were from, both banned because of getting pregnant outside of a marriage.
They have an alterior reason. The boy who lost his life in Twisted River, which doesn't have enough turns to be called twisted according to the cook, also came from Boston.
They end up in North End, an Italian neighbourhood in Boston, starting a new life.

This is where the second decade begins. The story skips several years and trails forth from 1954 to 1967.
Danny is all grown up now, graduated from Exeter, having his first book published while still writing and working as a teacher.
His dad lives in North End, together with the mother of the boy perished in Twisted River. Carmella, both an astonishing strong and strangely beautiful woman, enchanted him. They live together in a small apartment and both work at a local restaurant, Vicino di Napoli, where he finds out his father, who never married his mother after he knocked her up, worked as a busboy.
Meanwhile he's looking out for his son, trying to give him as much of a normal life as possible and trying to keep them both out of the clutches of a man who has found out the cook had an affair with his girlfriend. The constable still doesn't know he didn't kill her, but is enraged they had an affair.

Danny, having decided he wanted to be a writer on an early age, is encouraged by a teacher in the public school he attends to apply for Exeter. The teacher gives him a splendid recommendation and with exaggerating the conditions at home, he gets selected to go there with a full scholarship.

At the time this second parts comes on stage, Danny already has a kid himself. With the Vietnam war raging on, he met a girl who befathers guys who don't want to enlist themselves in the army. Katie, a so-called free spirit, coming from a wealthy home, marries Danny and gives him a boy, who he calls Joe. They stay married until Katie decides it's time to go. The 2year old might remember her, she states, if she stays longer.

Then the dreaded phonecall from their friend in New Hampshire comes. Ketchum calls, he admits to Danny he never learned to read, that he and Danny's mom were fucking while they should be attempting to read and that his girlfriend at-the-time 'Sixpack Pam' (because she firstly downs a whole sixpack before starting on other booze) reads his letters aloud. Of course, in those letters, there is a mention of the terrible accident that happened in 1954. Now Pam went to live with the constable and while Ketchum is sure she wouldn't do it maliciously, he knows that when the constable hits Pam hard enough she will spring that information on him just to point out he isn't as all-overpowering as he seems.
The cook, his son and his son's son will have to leave town and their lives again. They decide to go to Vermont, the son willingly since he got a position to teach there, the cook needing some incentive in the form of Ketchum arriving and sending him on his way.

The third part sets itself in Windham County, Vermont in 1983.
Danny having published a succesful novel, The Kennedy Fathers, and able to give up teaching and live of his earnings as a writer. His boy going through the rough pubescent years and his father starting up 2 restaurants. The first Benevento, being a small pizza place in an equally small town and after they move for a couple of years to Ohio, when they come back to Vermont, a second place called Avellino which he loves more than any restaurant he ever worked at.

Both men aren't married, or publicly seeing someone. Both have short flings, and both are concerned about each others dating habits. Both men are also worried about the flimsical way Joe, the youngest, goes about his way amongst women. They both dread he might impregnate a girl and end up having to marry her and quit school.
Beside those problems and anxieties, Joe turns out to be a pretty good wrestler and a lover of life. He decides to go to Colorado University, mostly because of the skiing opportunities.
This third decade, revolves around the coming of age of Joe, as well as Danny learning how to be a good father. There's the example of a dog, who has bitten him quite a few times on his daily runs and he and a friend decide to kill the dog, by having another dog attack it. Afterwards he does ponder if this is the way he wants his son to act, he doubts that he might have pushed it too far.

These chapters also return to a time where Joe was about ten and living in Ohio. He almost died, being hit by a blue mustang, while riding his bike in a back alley, his dad points out where he almost died the first time. He walks towards the place he lived with his wife Katie, together with his son, and tells him the story of how he once escaped his crib and walked out of the house onto the street in the dead of night, almost getting hit. Joe was 2 years old at the time and his father told the 10year Joe that he himself would have died, if Joe got killed that night.
Joe asks why. Danny answers that no father can live longer than his son.

The next turning of events is when two old broads from Twisted River end up eating in Avellino, the restaurant of Dominic, who now goes by the name of Tony Angel. They recognise his cooking and he and his family are forced to run again. This time, Ketchum recommends them to go across the border to Toronto.

The fourth decade plays its part in Toronto, in 2000.
Danny being embittered and mourning his son's death this part of the novel mainly focusses on the accident his son had.
Ketchum also visits more, especially during the holidays and he urges the cook not to work in an Italian restaurant, because the constable will be expecting that.
What he doesn't get, is the weird circumstance in which the constable will find the cook and his son. He follows Ketchum, because of a weird remark an employee gave at a garage both men attend, and gets led to the doorstep of the man he has been searching for, for multiple decades. Already in his 80's he is still ready to deal out a vengeful blow and surprises the cook in his sleep, shooting him dead while in bed.
Danny answers by shooting the constable.
Afterwards, he and Ketchum dump the ashes in Twisted River. Carmella, from Boston, tags along because Ketchum promised her to let her one day see the place her young son drowned.

Danny encounters Pam and she apologises for having told the constable and warns him for Ketchum's left hand. She urges him to make Ketchum tell him the story.
Ketchum does so, after a while and while Danny is back in Toronto and talking to a doctor he is befriended with, he asks his friend if someone could die from a severed hand.
The doctor tells him this is possible with the aid of aspirin.

1 year later, Pam arrives in Toronto during the holidays, bearing bad news and a dog. The dog stays in Toronto to stay with Danny and he hears what happened to Ketchum.

Danny being the sole one left, he spends most of his time alone. He regrets the things he has done and years for someone to spend his life with. The wife he almost could have had, if his son hadn't died or the woman he met while he was still in his twenties, skydiving naked from an airplane.
On one of his solitary trips, while writing the book we have read by now, the latter woman comes into his life, like an angel falling from the sky.

My Opinion?

The  first chapters tended to be longwinded. Nothing has happened, but the boy disappearing under the logs. Then the accident happens and you escape along with the two desperate characters.

This novel seems to be about fear. The cook constantly fears to be found, he fears his son will be with the wrong woman, he fears his son's fears. He fears to be with someone, as if he doesn't love Rosie anymore. The reason why the women he has relationships with are the opposite of his beloved Rosie.

Danny on his turn, also is afraid of so much. The only one seemingly carefree is Joe.

On another level, this novel is drenched in love. How else will someone leave everything, more than once, for someone else. In the beginning of the novel the cook sacrifices his life for his son, but later on the tables are turned, since the constable is looking rather for the cook because of the affair than for the son, because of the murder.

Being so heartfelt, full of sorrow, full of missed chances, both men are in a lost place. They never had a normal life, the cook choosing so, to honour his lost wife, the son never having had a normal life to settle down. Once, in Toronto, in came close, but then Joe's sudden demise caused everything to end.

I felt this was a slowpaced novel, one that grabs you by the throat and not letting go until you've read the last syllable.
I even wanted to read the novels Danny wrote. Having read a lot of novels, where the lead character is a writer, this hasn't happened before. I truly was fascinated by The Kennedy Fathers, and imagined what it would be about knowing a little of the story line. Also, his other novels, seemed to set a spark in me.

All in all.. I'm giving this book a 8 out of 10. The reason it lost 2 points, is that I wasn't a fan of the first chapters. Too much detailed info. It slowed everything down too much and it didn't add up to the story, neither the son nor the cook was a logger.
In the end of the novel it's assumed that the novel isn't about Danny, nor Dominic, but about Ketchum.. but with him not being part of the large part of the story I don't believe it. This novel is Danny's story.