*originally published in “Reading Selections” on December 23rd, but more worthy of a spot here. Thanks BogusTrumper!*
I recently saw John Irving do a brief reading from his new novel at the International Author’s Festival in Toronto. He was then interviewed by Seamus O’Regan and finally he took some questions from the audience. He was in fine form as he talked his writing process, cracked a joke about the obligation of writers to answer questions from Margaret Atwood, and told numerous funny anecdotes, including one about how he had to talk to Charlton Heston, proud President of the National Rifle Association, who was being scorned by puzzled left leaning liberals at a Pro-Choice fundraiser. (The refined liberals were incredulous that this gun-toting Moses moron could also support pro-choice). In addition to being a great writer, the Irving is quite a raconteur.
He spoke of his admiration for fellow New England writers Herman Melville and Nathaniel Hawthorne, in addition to Charles Dickens and Thomas Hardy. He claims that the first chapter of Hardy’s “The Mayor of Casterbridge” is perhaps the greatest first chapter of ANY novel. (although in his opinion the book does not rank that high overall, and is not even as good as Tess of the D’Urbervilles). But as a young man, Irving was completely awestruck by Hardy’s first chapter in which the protagonist gets so drunk that he auctions off his wife and baby daughter to a sailor. “Ha, imagine that!” Irving harrumphed. “How do you fix that?” he demanded. “…But that’s Hardy’s point – you can’t!” he bellowed.
I didn’t fully appreciate those comments until I was finished reading Last Night in Twisted River. Without giving away too much plot, something tragic happens early in the novel and the central characters are forced to flee and go into hiding. The novel is long and covers some fifty plus years of the characters’ lives (a testament to his love of Melville and Dickens, no doubt). In the end, Irving seems to be re-iterating his comments on Hardy’s work. The supposed protagonists can’t fix their situation – they can’t escape their mistake. Irving claims that this theme runs through all twelve of his novels. The lesson is that it is possible to make a mistake of such magnitude that you can never recover or be redeemed.
Despite the length of the novel, the plot is juvenile, and the supposed protagonist characters are not very well developed. But as poorly developed as the supposed protagonist characters are, a minor character emerges as the novel’s true hero. In the final chapters, Irving actually admits (and an intelligent reader has already clued in) that the novel is really an excuse to write about the more minor character Ketchum, despite the fact that he has taken you on an epic journey of the supposed protagonists’ lives. Nevertheless, Irving has created a very memorable character that would stack up against Hardy or Dickens character. The Ketchum character is a man with a seemingly untenable combination of beliefs – ala Charlton Heston.
Through Ketchum, Irving is not only defending the true libertarians, but taking a long-winded shot at partisan morons, (including both idiotic George Bush fans and smug Canadians). In addition to poking partisan morons though, he is also warning the rest of us to remember to really think and not rely on partisan ideology or supposed educational sophistication.
I must admit, I was disappointed with the book. At one point, the supposed main character, who happens to be a writer, admits that he is “not an intellectual, but a storyteller”. And while Irving may never be confused with “intellectual” writers, in earlier works, Irving was able to weave important topics like abortion, feminism and religion into very powerful stories. In this novel, however, it seems as though Irving just wanted to write a story and then felt he had to add some kind of a message. Irving is a master storyteller with a terrific sense of humour and there were two points where I had to put the book down because I was laughing so hard. That said, this will be considered a minor work compared to his earlier classics. It is a bit like a Beatles fan, listening to Paul McCartney’s recent albums – there are hints of the old genius, but you get the feeling he’s now just doing it out of habit.