I’ve been a lifelong fan of John Irving ever since The World According to Garp put him on the world literary map in 1978. Since then, I’ve read all of his later novels, except The Cider House Rules (1985), which many consider his best or at least on a par with Garp and A Prayer for Owen Meany (1989), my favourite. Few notable American writers make you laugh out loud as a matter of routine, and of those that do fewer still have his reach and his punch. That his delightful farcical sequences and satirical shafts hovering between the macabre and the impish come along too many lengthy stretches of workaday prose can be excused in his best works as they are in, say, Moby Dick, given his grandness of purpose and scope, as well as the obvious tenderness he feels and makes us feel for his characters and mankind in general. Irving is a writer out of the Sinclair Lewis mould, yet his Babbitts have a sense of humour.
After Owen Meany came, at three to five years intervals, A Son of the Circus, A Widow for One Year, The Fourth Hand, Until I find You, and now Last Night in Twisted River, and taken together it should be obvious from these novels that Irving’s powers to entertain are on the wane and he is reduced to imitating himself and posturing in the manner of a post-modernism he doesn’t quite understand.
A Son of the Circus was as powerful a settling of scores with his father as John Le Carré’s Perfect Spy was with his own – the latter by far the better read, being undiluted and better focused.
As if that wasn’t enough, twelve years later the mammoth Until I find You was a reworking of the father-son attraction-repulsion act. I remember plodding through hundreds and then hundred more pages asking myself where all the fun had gone and what the point of it was, but also of my delight and admiration when the second part of the book turned the plot inside out like a glove, a rare accomplishment outside of whodunits: that piece of legerdemain was deft, was brilliant, even if the ‘main’ in question went heavy with the salt.
As for the Widow and Fourth Hand, well, I just had to go back to the blurbs to remember what they were all about.
And now Twisted River, meandering over 568 pages in the Black Swan paperback I bought.
What a bore of a book!
I’m on page 233 and doubt I can go through with the ‘stately, sophisticated rumination on the nature of storytelling – and love’ the authoritative literary magazine Marie Claire assures us it is. (Talk about killer references in bookdom.)
It takes over a hundred pages for the plot to begin to firm up and move, the first fifty painstakingly telling us all we surely don’t need to know about the obsolescent business of a small logging community in Coos County, New Hampshire, with its collection of crippled or otherwise impaired oddballs with complicated Italian names (the roots and variations of which are fussily explained for local flavour), whose cousins or twins people previous books by the same pen or have sauntered over from other people’s yarns: thus, larger-than-life Ketchum, a cross between Sabbath and Henderson dipped in ketchup when he was small. Once the plot is afloat, it drifts away with the incoherence of a log caught in sluggish rapids, before ‘stately rumination’ raises its ugly head, or should I say dentures.
To compound the pain, the book was shoddily proofread, if at all: from page 70 to page 215, I noticed no fewer than eleven misprints or punctuation lapses.
Reading on, I’ve had the same feeling as when watching a Cassius Clay drifting past his Muhammad Ali phase into Parkinson’s. The belaboured wisdom of storytelling, the posturing, the creaking at the joints, are disheartening. Clearly, that Last night is the last light in the fecund twisted river of the writer that was.