Books

In Medias Res

In the Middle of John Irving's Twisted River

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JOHN IRVING'S 12TH NOVEL begins in medias res. We're immediately thrust into the action: A 15-year-old working a logging drive in northern New Hampshire falls into the river and is sucked under the logs. But the boy is dead by the end of the first paragraph, so Irving backtracks with lengthy expository and the repetition of seemingly minor details. It's a trick Irving practices throughout Last Night in Twisted River; each of the book's six sections jars us forward chronologically, then slowly looks back over the intervening story. And, as in Irving's previous work, those seemingly minor details become mantras—as crucial to the plot as the boy's violent drowning.

It's a large book, and it's a welcome return to form for Irving, whose last two novels—the myopic Until I Find You and the flat-out dreadful The Fourth Hand—indicated he might have lost his wonderful touch for long, absurdly comic, sexually charged, New England-based stories. Twisted River is a fine read, dealing with many of Irving's favored themes: parent-child relationships (the story follows the logging camp's cook and his son Danny over half a century), absent parents (when Danny was a baby, his mother also drowned in that river), writing (Danny grows up to be a writer), and bears (Danny mistakes a woman for one, and kills her).

After Danny accidentally kills the woman-bear, he and his father flee New Hampshire. Their lives are spent on the run, but Irving draws out the chase over decades—it's a mere clothesline for Irving to hang the rest of the story. Danny's career as a writer mirrors Irving's own, and part of the book's fun is guessing which elements are based in real life (almost none, Irving/Danny would like you to believe): "A fiction writer's job was imagining, truly, a whole story—as Danny had subversively said, whenever he was given the opportunity to defend the fiction in fiction writing—because real-life stories were never whole, never complete in the ways that novels could be."

Irving has always been a classicist; his books have resembled the winding but straightforward narratives of the 19th century. Twisted River is the closest thing he's done to postmodernism. It frequently becomes about itself—there's even a chapter titled "In Medias Res." Danny struggles to keep his life and his fiction separate—much in the way that he and his father attempt to keep their past at bay, but ultimately become defined by it. Irving writes, "'If we live long enough, we become caricatures of ourselves,' Danny said aloud to himself—as if he were writing this down, which he wasn't."

Read the Mercury's online interview with John Irving here.

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