Mr. Irving uses coincidences, cliffhanger chapter endings and other 19th-century novelistic devices to hook the reader, while at the same time orchestrating them to underscore the improbable, random nature of real life. Some of his inventions…are ludicrous at first glance, but the reader gradually comes to understand that they are writerly metaphors for the precarious nature of life in "a world of accidents," that the volume we hold in our hands is, in fact, the creation of Danny, who is trying to make sense of the unlikely trajectory of his life through the act of writing. In this respect Last Night in Twisted River emerges not just as a tall tale, but also as an entertaining, if messy and long-winded, commentary on the fiction-making process itself.
The New York Times
Irving (The World According to Garp) returns with a scattershot novel, the overriding themes, locations and sensibilities of which will probably neither surprise longtime fans nor win over the uninitiated. Dominic “Cookie” Baciagalupo and his son, Danny, work the kitchen of a New Hampshire logging camp overlooking the Twisted River, whose currents claimed both Danny's mother and, as the novel opens, mysterious newcomer Angel Pope. Following an Irvingesque appearance of bears, Cookie and Danny's “world of accidents” expands, precipitating a series of adventures both literary and culinary. The ensuing 50-year slog follows the Baciagalupos from a Boston Italian restaurant to an Iowa City Chinese joint and finally a Toronto French cafe, while dovetailing clumsily with Danny's career as the distinctly Irving-like writer Danny Angel. The story's vicariousness is exacerbated by frequent changes of scene, self-conscious injections of how writers must “detach themselves” and a cast of invariably flat characters. With conflict this meandering and characters this limp, reflexive gestures come off like nostalgia and are bound to leave readers wishing Irving had detached himself even more. (Oct.)
Irving's 12th novel—following Until I Find You (2005), also available from Books on Tape and Random Audio—covers five decades in the lives of three highly memorable characters. Most of Irving's usual themes and icons appear here, from bears to wrestling to unseen fears, as he uses the character of a writer to define his own fiction writing process. Narrator Arthur Morey (The Ministry of Special Cases) shows an impressive grasp of the language in his reading of this father-son love story touched with loss and humor; he especially captures well the cantankerous logger Ketchum, who serves as the book's political compass. Long and demanding but highly worth it; recommended for contemporary fiction audiences. [The New York Times best-selling Random hc was described as being "interesting, funny, and original," LJ 11/1/09; the pb will release in June 2010.—Ed.]—Joyce Kessel, Villa Maria Coll., Buffalo
Irving's new doorstopper (Until I Find You, 2006, etc.) addresses a strong theme-the role accident plays in even the most carefully planned and managed lives-but doesn't always stick to the subject. His logjam of a narrative focuses on the life and times of Danny Baciagalupo, who navigates the roiling waters of growing up alongside his widowed father Dominic, a crippled logging-camp cook employed by a company that plies its dangerous trade along the zigzag Twisted River, north of New Hampshire's Androscoggin River in Robert Frost's old neighborhood of Coos County. The story begins swiftly and compellingly in 1954, when a river accident claims the life of teenaged Canadian sawmill worker Angel Pope, whom none of his co-workers really know. Irving's characters live in a "world of accidents" whose by-products include Dominic's maiming and the death of his young wife in a mishap similar to Angel's. All is nicely done throughout the novel's assured and precisely detailed early pages. But trouble looms and symbols clash when Danny mistakenly thinks a constable's lady friend is a bear, and admirers of The Cider House Rules (1985) and A Prayer for Owen Meany (1989) will anticipate that Large Meanings prowl these dark woods. The narrative flattens out as we follow the Baciagalupos south to Boston, thence to Iowa (where we're treated to a lengthy account of Danny's studies, surely not unlike Irving's own, at the Iowa Writers' Workshop), and an enormity of specifics and generalizations about Danny's career as bestselling author "Danny Angel." The tale spans 50 years, and Danny's/Irving's penchant for commentary on the psyche, obligations and disappointments of the writer's life makes those yearsfeel like centuries. Will entertain the faithful and annoy readers who think this author has already written the same novel too many times.
From the Publisher
“Absolutely unmissable . . . [A] big-hearted, brilliantly written and superbly realized intergenerational tale of a father and son.”—Financial Times
“Engrossing . . . Irving’s sentences and paragraphs are assembled with the skill and attention to detail of a master craftsman creating a dazzling piece of jewelry from hundreds of tiny, bright stones.”—Houston Chronicle
“There’s plenty of evidence in Irving’s agility as a writer in Last Night in Twisted River. . . . some of the comic moments are among the most memorable that Irving has written.”—New York Times
“A rich and evocative story.”—Washington Post
Read an Excerpt
Out on a logjam, once the key log was pried loose, the river drivers
had to move quickly and continually; if they paused for even a second
or two, they would be pitched into the torrent. In a river drive, death
among moving logs could occur from a crushing injury, before you
had a chance to drown-but drowning was more common.
From the riverbank, where the cook and his twelve-year-old son
could hear the cursing of the logger whose wrist had been broken, it
was immediately apparent that someone was in more serious trouble
than the would-be rescuer, who'd freed his injured arm and had managed
to regain his footing on the flowing logs. His fellow river drivers
ignored him; they moved with small, rapid steps toward shore, calling
out the lost boy's name. The loggers ceaselessly prodded with their
pike poles, directing the floating logs ahead of them. The rivermen
were, for the most part, picking the safest way ashore, but to the cook's
hopeful son it seemed that they might have been trying to create a gap
of sufficient width for the young Canadian to emerge. In truth, there
were now only intermittent gaps between the logs. The boy who'd told
them his name was "Angel Pope, from Toronto," was that quickly
"Is it Angel?" the twelve-year-old asked his father. This boy, with
his dark-brown eyes and intensely serious expression, could have been
mistaken for Angel's younger brother, but there was no mistaking the
family resemblance that the twelve-year-old bore to his ever-watchful
father. The cook had an aura of controlled apprehension about him, as
if he routinely anticipated the most unforeseen disasters, and there
was something about his son's seriousness that reflected this; in fact,
the boy looked so much like his father that several of the woodsmen
had expressed their surprise that the son didn't also walk with his dad's
The cook knew too well that indeed it was the young Canadian
who had fallen under the logs. It was the cook who'd warned the loggers
that Angel was too green for the river drivers' work; the youth
should not have been trying to free a logjam. But probably the boy had
been eager to please, and maybe the rivermen hadn't noticed him at
In the cook's opinion, Angel Pope had also been too green (and too
clumsy) to be working in the vicinity of the main blade in a sawmill.
That was strictly the sawyer's territory -- a highly skilled position in
the mills. The planer operator was a relatively skilled position, too,
though not particularly dangerous.
The more dangerous and less skilled positions included working
on the log deck, where logs were rolled into the mill and onto the saw
carriage, or unloading logs from the trucks. Before the advent of mechanical
loaders, the logs were unloaded by releasing trip bunks on the
sides of the trucks-this allowed an entire load to roll off a truck at
once. But the trip bunks sometimes failed to release; the men were occasionally caught under a cascade of logs while they were trying to
free a bunk.
As far as the cook was concerned, Angel shouldn't have been in any
position that put the boy in close proximity to moving logs. But the
lumberjacks had been as fond of the young Canadian as the cook and
his son had been, and Angel had said he was bored working in the
kitchen. The youth had wanted more physical labor, and he liked the
The repeated thunk-thunk of the pike poles, poking the logs, was
briefly interrupted by the shouts of the rivermen who had spotted
Angel's pike pole-more than fifty yards from where the boy had vanished.
The fifteen-foot pole was floating free of the log drive, out
where the river currents had carried it away from the logs.
The cook could see that the river driver with the broken wrist had
come ashore, carrying his pike pole in his good hand. First by the familiarity
of his cursing, and only secondarily by the logger's matted
hair and tangled beard, did the cook realize that the injured man was
Ketchum-no neophyte to the treachery of a log drive.
It was April -- not long after the last snowmelt and the start of mud
season -- but the ice had only recently broken up in the river basin, the
first logs falling through the ice upstream of the basin, on the Dummer
ponds. The river was ice-cold and swollen, and many of the lumberjacks
had heavy beards and long hair, which would afford them some
scant protection from the blackflies in mid-May.
Ketchum lay on his back on the riverbank like a beached bear. The
moving mass of logs flowed past him. It appeared as if the log drive
were a life raft, and the loggers who were still out on the river seemed
like castaways at sea -- except that the sea, from one moment to the
next, turned from greenish brown to bluish black. The water in
Twisted River was richly dyed with tannins.
"Shit, Angel!" Ketchum shouted from his back. "I said, 'Move your
feet, Angel. You have to keep moving your feet!' Oh, shit."
The vast expanse of logs had been no life raft for Angel, who'd
surely drowned or been crushed to death in the basin above the river
bend, although the lumberjacks (Ketchum among them) would follow
the log drive at least to where Twisted River poured into the Pontook
Reservoir at Dead Woman Dam. The Pontook Dam on the Androscoggin
River had created the reservoir; once the logs were let
loose in the Androscoggin, they would next encounter the sorting
gaps outside Milan. In Berlin, the Androscoggin dropped two hundred
feet in three miles; two paper mills appeared to divide the river at
the sorting gaps in Berlin. It was not inconceivable to imagine that
young Angel Pope, from Toronto, was on his way there.
Come nightfall, the cook and his son were still attempting to
salvage leftovers, for tomorrow's meals, from the scores of untouched
dinners in the small settlement's dining lodge -- the cookhouse in the
so-called town of Twisted River, which was barely larger and only a
little less transient than a logging camp. Not long ago, the only dining
lodge on a river drive hadn't been a lodge at all. There once was a traveling
kitchen that had been permanently built onto a truck body, and
an adjacent truck on which a modular dining hall could be taken
down and reassembled -- this was when the trucks used to perpetually
move camp to another site on Twisted River, wherever the loggers
were working next.
In those days, except on the weekends, the rivermen rarely went
back to the town of Twisted River to eat or sleep. The camp cook had
often cooked in a tent. Everything had to be completely portable;
even the sleeping shelters were built onto truck bodies.
Now nobody knew what would become of the less-than-thriving
town of Twisted River, which was situated partway between the river
basin and the Dummer ponds. The sawmill workers and their families
lived there, and the logging company maintained bunkhouses for the
more transient woodsmen, who included not only the French Canadian
itinerants but most of the river drivers and the other loggers. The
company also maintained a better equipped kitchen, an actual dining
lodge- the aforementioned cookhouse -- for the cook and his son.
But for how much longer? Not even the owner of the logging company
The lumber industry was in transition; it would one day be possible
for every worker in the logging business to work from home. The
logging camps (and even the slightly less marginal settlements like
Twisted River) were dying. The wanigans themselves were disappearing; those curious shelters for sleeping and eating and storing equipment
had not only been mounted on trucks, on wheels, or on crawler
tracks, but they were often attached to rafts or boats.
The Indian dishwasher -- she worked for the cook -- had long ago
told the cook's young son that wanigan was from an Abenaki word,
leading the boy to wonder if the dishwasher herself was from the
Abenaki tribe. Perhaps she just happened to know the origin of the
word, or she'd merely claimed to know it. (The cook's son went to
school with an Indian boy who'd told him that wanigan was of Algonquian origin.)
While it lasted, the work during a river drive was from dawn till
dark. It was the protocol in a logging operation to feed the men four
times a day. In the past, when the wanigans couldn't get close to a river
site, the two midday meals had been trekked to the drivers. The first
and last meal were served in the base camp- nowadays, in the dining
lodge. But out of their affection for Angel, tonight many of the loggers
had missed their last meal in the cookhouse. They'd spent the
evening following the log drive, until the darkness had driven them
away -- not only the darkness, but also the men's growing awareness
that none of them knew if Dead Woman Dam was open. From the
basin below the town of Twisted River, the logs -- probably with
Angel among them -- might already have flowed into the Pontook
Reservoir, but not if Dead Woman Dam was closed. And if the Pontook
Dam and Dead Woman were open, the body of the young Canadian
would be headed pell-mell down the Androscoggin. No one
knew better than Ketchum that there would likely be no finding
The cook could tell when the river drivers had stopped searching-from the kitchen's screen door, he could hear them leaning their pike
poles against the cookhouse. A few of the tired searchers found their
way to the dining lodge after dark; the cook didn't have the heart to turn
them away. The hired help had all gone home -- everyone but the Indian
dishwasher, who stayed late most nights. The cook, whose difficult
name was Dominic Baciagalupo -- or "Cookie," as the lumberjacks routinely
called him -- made the men a late supper, which his twelve-year-old
"Where's Ketchum?" the boy asked his dad.
"He's probably getting his arm fixed," the cook replied.
"I'll bet he's hungry," the twelve-year-old said, "but Ketchum is
"He's impressively tough for a drinking man," Dominic agreed, but
he was thinking that maybe Ketchum wasn't tough enough for this.
Losing Angel Pope might be hardest on Ketchum, the cook thought,
because the veteran logger had taken the young Canadian under his
wing. He'd looked after the boy, or he had tried to.
Ketchum had the blackest hair and beard-the charred-black
color of charcoal, blacker than a black bear's fur. He'd been married
young-and more than once. He was estranged from his children,
who had grown up and gone their own ways. Ketchum lived year-round
in one of the bunkhouses, or in any of several run-down hostelries,
if not in a wanigan of his own devising-namely, in the back of
his pickup truck, where he had come close to freezing to death on
those winter nights when he'd passed out, dead drunk. Yet Ketchum
had kept Angel away from alcohol, and he'd kept not a few of the
older women at the so-called dance hall away from the young Canadian,
"You're too young, Angel," the cook had heard Ketchum tell the
youth. "Besides, you can catch things from those ladies."
Ketchum would know, the cook had thought. Dominic knew that
Ketchum had done more damage to himself than breaking his wrist in
a river drive.
The steady hiss and intermittent flickering of the pilot lights on
the gas stove in the cookhouse kitchen -- an old Garland with two
ovens and eight burners, and a flame-blackened broiler above -- seemed perfectly in keeping with the lamentations of the loggers over
their late supper. They had been charmed by the lost boy, whom they'd
adopted as they would a stray pet. The cook had been charmed, too.
Perhaps he saw in the unusually cheerful teenager some future incarnation
of his twelve-year-old son-for Angel had a welcoming expression
and a sincere curiosity, and he exhibited none of the withdrawn
sullenness that appeared to afflict the few young men his age in a rough
and rudimentary place like Twisted River.
This was all the more remarkable because the youth had told them
that he'd recently run away from home.
"You're Italian, aren't you?" Dominic Baciagalupo had asked the
"I'm not from Italy, I don't speak Italian -- you're not much of an
Italian if you come from Toronto," Angel had answered.
The cook had held his tongue. Dominic knew a little about Boston
Italians; some of them seemed to have issues regarding how Italian
they were. And the cook knew that Angel, in the old country, might
have been an Angelo. (When Dominic had been a little boy, his
mother had called him Angelù-in her Sicilian accent, this sounded
But after the accident, nothing with Angel Pope's written name
could be found; among the boy's few belongings, not a single book or
letter identified him. If he'd had any identification, it had gone into
the river basin with him -- probably in the pocket of his dungarees -- and if they never located the body, there would be no way to inform
Angel's family, or whoever the boy had run away from.
Legally or not, and with or without proper papers, Angel Pope had
made his way across the Canadian border to New Hampshire. Not the
way it was usually done, either-Angel hadn't come from Quebec.
He'd made a point of arriving from Ontario -- he was not a French
Canadian. The cook hadn't once heard Angel speak a word of French
or Italian, and the French Canadians at the camp had wanted nothing
to do with the runaway boy -- apparently, they didn't like English
Canadians. Angel, for his part, kept his distance from the French; he
didn't appear to like the Québécois any better than they liked him.
Dominic had respected the boy's privacy; now the cook wished
he knew more about Angel Pope, and where he'd come from. Angel
had been a good-natured and fair-minded companion for the cook's
twelve-year-old son, Daniel-or Danny, as the loggers and the saw-mill men called the boy.
Almost every male of working age in Twisted River knew the cook
and his son- some women, too. Dominic had needed to know a number
of women-mainly, to help him look after his son-for the cook
had lost his wife, Danny's young mother, a long-seeming decade ago.
Dominic Baciagalupo believed that Angel Pope had had some experience
with kitchen work, which the boy had done awkwardly but
uncomplainingly, and with an economy of movement that must have
been born of familiarity -- despite his professed boredom with
cooking-related chores, and his penchant for cutting himself on the
Moreover, the young Canadian was a reader; he'd borrowed many
books that had belonged to Dominic's late wife, and he often read
aloud to Daniel. It was Ketchum's opinion that Angel had read Robert
Louis Stevenson to young Dan "to excess" -- not only Kidnapped and
Treasure Island but his unfinished deathbed novel, St. Ives, which
Ketchum said should have died with the author. At the time of the accident
on the river, Angel had been reading The Wrecker to Danny.
(Ketchum had not yet weighed in with his opinion of that novel.)
Well, whatever Angel Pope's background had been, he'd had some
schooling, clearly-more than most of the French Canadian woodsmen
the cook had known. (More than most of the sawmill workers
and the local woodsmen, too.)
"Why did Angel have to die?" Danny asked his dad. The twelve-year-old was helping his father wipe down the dining tables after the
late-arriving loggers had gone off to bed, or perhaps to drink. And although
she often kept herself busy in the cookhouse quite late into the
night, at least well past Danny's bedtime, the Indian dishwasher had
finished with her chores; by now, she'd driven her truck back to town.
"Angel didn't have to die, Daniel-it was an avoidable accident."
The cook's vocabulary often made reference to avoidable accidents,
and his twelve-year-old son was overfamiliar with his father's grim
and fatalistic thoughts on human fallibility -- the recklessness of
youth, in particular. "He was too green to be out on a river drive," the
cook said, as if that were all there was to it.
Danny Baciagalupo knew his dad's opinion of all the things Angel,
or any boy that age, was too green to do. The cook also would have
wanted to keep Angel far away from a peavey. (The peavey's most important
feature was the hinged hook that made it possible to roll a
heavy log by hand. )
According to Ketchum, the "old days" had been more perilous.
Ketchum claimed that working with the horses, pulling the scoots out
of the winter woods, was risky work. In the winter, the lumberjacks
tramped up into the mountains. They'd cut down the trees and (not
that long ago) used horses to pull the timber out, one log at a time.
The scoots, or wheelless drays, were dragged like sleds on the frozen
snow, which not even the horses' hooves could penetrate because the
sled ruts on the horse-haul roads were iced down every night. Then
the snowmelt and mud season came, and-"back then," as Ketchum
would say -- all the work in the woods was halted.
But even this was changing. Since the new logging machinery
could work in muddy conditions and haul much longer distances to
improved roads, which could be used in all seasons, mud season itself
was becoming less of an issue -- and horses were giving way to crawler
The bulldozers made it possible to build a road right to a logging
site, where the wood could be hauled out by truck. The trucks moved
the wood to a more central drop point on a river, or on a pond or lake;
in fact, highway transport would very soon supplant the need for river
drives. Gone were the days when a snubbing winch had been used to
ease the horses down the steeper slopes. "The teams could slide on
their haunches," Ketchum had told young Dan. (Ketchum rated oxen
highly, for their steady footing in deep snow, but oxen had never been
Gone, too, was railroad logging in the woods; it came to an end in
the Pemigewasset Valley in '48 -- the same year one of Ketchum's
cousins had been killed by a Shay locomotive at the Livermore Falls
paper mill. The Shay weighed fifty tons and had been used to pull the
last of the rails from the woods. The former railroad beds made for
firm haul roads for the trucks in the 1950s, although Ketchum could
still remember a murder on the Beebe River Railroad -- back when he'd
been the teamster for a bobsled loaded with prime virgin spruce behind
a four -- horse rig. Ketchum had been the teamster on one of the early
Lombard steam engines, too-the one steered by a horse. The horse
had turned the front sled runners, and the teamster sat at the front of
the log hauler; later models replaced the horse and teamster with a
helmsman at a steering wheel. Ketchum had been a helmsman, too,
Danny Baciagalupo knew -- clearly, Ketchum had done everything.
NEW HAMPSHIRE, 1954
C H A P T E R 1
UNDER THE LOGS
The young canadian, who could not have been more
than fifteen, had hesitated too long. For a frozen moment, his feet had
stopped moving on the floating logs in the basin above the river bend;
he'd slipped entirely underwater before anyone could grab his outstretched
hand. One of the loggers had reached for the youth's long
hair-the older man's fingers groped around in the frigid water, which
was thick, almost soupy, with sloughed-off slabs of bark. Then two
logs collided hard on the would-be rescuer's arm, breaking his wrist.
The carpet of moving logs had completely closed over the young
Canadian, who never surfaced; not even a hand or one of his boots
broke out of the brown water.