Last Night in Twisted River is not quite the comeback John Irving needed to make readers forget, or to forgive, the dreary Until I Find You, but it is a giant step in the right direction. One of things Irving has always done best is to create remarkably detailed and realistic settings in which to place his larger-than-life characters, and he uses that skill to great effect here. Irving also touches on so many of his familiar themes - wrestling, single-parent homes, New England locales, sudden loss of those closest to you, and bears, among them - that his longtime readers will recognize the territory.
This story of the Dominic Baciagalupo family, spanning more than five decades and three generations, begins in the remote logging environment of 1950’s New Hampshire, very near the Canadian border. Dominic, known to everyone in the logging camp as “Cookie,” is in charge of feeding all those involved in the formidable task of harvesting the riches of the New Hampshire forests. He has lived alone above the cookhouse with his twelve-year-old son Danny ever since losing his wife to the tragic river accident that claimed her suddenly one winter night. Dominic, having experienced or witnessed numerous crippling, if not always fatal, accidents in Twisted River over the years, knows that he lives in “a world of accidents.” He lives in dread of the next moment someone close to him will be snatched away.
Even in his wildest imagination, however, Dominic could not have imagined the accident that would force him to flee Twisted River with his son in a desperate attempt to keep the two together. Nor could he have imagined that what happened in the cookhouse that night would haunt Dominic and Danny Baciagalupo for the next fifty years. The pair may have left Twisted River behind forever, but they still had to reckon with a man who wanted revenge so badly that he would never stop searching for them. Over five decades and three generations, Dominic and Danny would live in several states and Canada, moving every time their tormentor seemed to be catching up with them.
Dominic and Danny are lucky to have the help of their old friend, Ketchum, a giant of a man who still lives near enough Twisted River to keep an eye on the man filled with such hate for Dominic and his son. Several times over the decades, Ketchum convinces Dominic and Danny that it is again time for them to abandon their new life in favor of avoiding the man who wants to see them dead. Several geographic moves will culminate finally in Danny and his father living in Toronto, where Dominic works in a popular restaurant while Danny pursues his career as bestselling author Danny Angel.
Ketchum, Dominic and Danny are not the only memorable characters in Last Night in Twisted River, however. The book is filled with women who are large in every sense of the word, and each of them plays a significant role in the lives of the Baciagalupo men. Among others, there are “Injun Jane,” Dominic’s one-time lover who weighs in at more than 300 pounds; “Six-Pack Pam,” Ketchum’s lover who is large enough to intimidate most men with malice on their minds; and “Lady Sky,” the naked skydiver who literally falls into Danny’s lap.
Last Night in Twisted River is an intriguing story, but there is a bit of a problem in the way that Irving tells it. At over 550 pages in length, its repetitiousness becomes tedious - especially, but not limited to, the chapters following the book’s climax. Too, numerous pages toward the very end of the book are used as a political rant of sorts (an extremely mean-spirited and vulgar rant, at that) against all things Republican, conservative, George W. Bush, or religious right. Similar, but more concise, expressions made earlier in the book fit the voices of the characters making them, but one feels that the rant at the end of the book is there strictly for the benefit of Irving, not his characters. It makes for a jarring change of tone and, because it occurs so close to the end, it is what some are likely to remember most about the book.