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'Last Night in Twisted River' by John Irving

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Last Night in Twisted River

A Novel

John Irving

Random House: 558 pp., $28

The opening passages of "Last Night in Twisted River" recycle John Irving's signature themes at such dizzy speed, it's as though the author were ticking boxes. New England? Check: The story begins in New Hampshire, where Irving once situated an eponymous hotel. Subversive Christian symbolism? Double-check: The first character introduced is fallen Angel Pope. Fractured family? But of course: Irving heroes, like those in Dickens and Disney cartoons, are invariably short a parent or two; here, young Danny Baciagalupo's mother absents herself early on, sucked beneath the frosted tide of Twisted River one bleak midwinter's night in 1944.

Later, our precocious protagonist, taking his cue from T.S. Garp, becomes a man of letters, and throughout the story, an insistent ursine leitmotif recalls both "The Pension Grillparzer" (Garp's debut) and "Setting Free the Bears" (Irving's).

So Irving loots his own canon. Philip Roth does too. Richard Ford has yet to write a novel in which flinty American manhood and the dissolution of community do not mutually refract. And Don DeLillo's career represents a 40-year meditation on the ravages of consumerism -- commercial, spiritual, political. Four iconic novelists, yet only Irving has in recent years weathered complaint, even contempt, for plying his stock-in-trade -- the neo-Dickensian saga, liberally flavored with deviant sex and grotesquerie. Granted, his tropes are conspicuously unvaried, his prose rhythms almost lock step; and yes, his last two novels -- the sunken-chested "The Fourth Hand" and the gloomy picaresque "Until I Find You" -- wheezed and sputtered like faulty engines. "Vigor mortis," the critics chorused.

But as "Twisted River" proves, reports of Irving's demise are greatly exaggerated. Not since the shambolic but cruelly underrated "A Son of the Circus" has he delivered a novel so full-throated, hot-blooded and clear-eyed; not since "A Widow for One Year" has he sculpted a story with such poise; not since Garp has he so trenchantly assessed the writer's craft. Majestic yet intimate, shot with whimsy, dread and molten pathos, "Twisted River" compresses the panoramic scope of his midcareer legacy without diluting its brio. This isn't a comeback so much as a coming-of-age: Irving's first novel to reconfigure those Irving-esque devices -- the doomed naif, the artist in bloom, the sweet, bitter tug-of-war between duty and destiny -- into a tale as introspective as it is retrospective. It's simultaneously every story he's ever published and something altogether new.

Like most Irving narratives, "Twisted River" resists summary. Dominic and Danny Baciagalupo -- the name, and its provenance, as treacherous as the river where the stunted family makes its home -- sling barracks hash for the lumberjacks in a logging camp near the Quebec border. Sobered, both in spirit and in diet, by his wife's drowning a decade earlier, padre Baciagalupo clings to his only child. "The cook's vocabulary often made reference to avoidable accidents," Irving explains, "and his twelve-year-old son was overfamiliar with his father's grim and fatalistic thoughts on human fallibility." When Danny mistakes a neighbor woman for a bear and bludgeons her with a skillet -- readers will recall the errant foul ball in "A Prayer for Owen Meany" -- Dominic the ontologist reconsiders: "It was an accident," he decides. "It's nobody's fault."

But it is, of course, even though Danny's misbegotten prey appeared "both bigger and hairier than what the boy had ever imagined a bear could be." By morning, the two have fled Twisted River, and thereafter Danny's life -- swollen with fortune and mishap -- will challenge any received notions of fate, faith and happenstance. Like his creator, Danny enrolls at the Iowa Writers' Workshop and soon launches a literary career. And by novel's end -- "Twisted River" clocks in at 550-odd (sometimes very odd) pages, positively svelte by Irving standards -- a constellation of characters aligns across the vault of half a century: loves lost, friends found, guardian angels, snakes in the grass. As ever, his story lines shuffle forward and shuttle back, even as the pendulum of fate swings over his cast: Who will avenge the death of the felled neighbor? Where did Angel Pope learn to cook? Why is Ketchum, the novel's foulmouthed Greek chorus, so tethered to the fugitives?

The author's faithful will note his trademark stylistic flourishes: a thicket of italics, semicolons winking on every page. The novel breaks no formal ground. But Irving's bracing clarity of focus -- especially after a decade tracking vagabond church organists through Scandinavian tattoo parlors and chronicling the sexual antics of an amputee womanizer -- signals a sea change; like the warped pine tree that graces its jacket, the novel skews at bold angles, veering where recent Irving books haven't dared: into the hearts -- not just the bedrooms -- of its characters. "Not surprisingly, the theme of the novel didn't change," notes Danny Baciagalupo, after extensively revising a manuscript. Nor, in Irving's case, does it need to. "Last Night in Twisted River" mulls the crises that steep Irving's finest work, from "Garp" to "Owen Meany" to "Widow." Yet the scale here is more human, and his approach more humane, than anything that's come before.

Mallory researches modernist literature at New College, Oxford.

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