Saturday, November 3, 2012

Last Night in Twisted River by John Irving

This is the third novel by Irving John that I read. A book about a father and son on the run and how it affects their lives or rather the lack of it. Some of the characters seem hard to believe and somehow that makes the book more interesting - the mix of characters.

Danny knew that his father's life had been changed forever because of an ankle injury; a different accident, to the boy's young mother, had altered the course of his own childhood and changed his dad's life forever again. In a twelve-year old's world, change couldn't be good. Any change made Danny anxious - the way missing school made him anxious.

Danny's father Dominic might have become a logger if not for that injury. His life had indeed changed, but for the better or for the worse? If not for the ankle injury, maybe he would have become like Ketchum - a hard riverman who lived among the elements and feared nothing. Instead he became a cook and a husband to a woman who was a school teacher. Throughout the book, there seems to be these two diverging roads - the one that Dominic took and the one that Ketchum takes. The two roads are so incredibly different that it is impossible to compare them. Makes you wonder, what is happiness and what must you have to be happy? Or rather, would not having anything like Ketchum be the ultimate happiness?

Perhaps the photographs of his dead mother were sufficient to make young Dan a writer; he had managed to take only some of them from the cookhouse in Twisted River, and he would miss the books he'd kept her photos pressed flat in - particularly, the novels that contained passages that Rosie had underlined. The passages themselves were a way for the boy to better imagine his mother, together with the photos. Trying to imagine those left-behind pictures was a way of imagining her, too.

Danny becomes a writer but was this why? He had so few photos of his mother and such a poor memory of her, that he felt he had to master words to remember her - words that wouldn't need more photos or more physical contact between humans. Or was it just that Rosie loved books, she might have read his books if she had lived longer? Somehow I came away feeling strongly about the choice of vocations that the characters in the book chose and their reasons for doing so. Maybe the author intended it, maybe he didn't. Dominic chose to be a cook but it was an interesting choice. Dominic being illegitimate had only his mother when he had his injury. And also, his mother had only him. Was that why he chose to be cook? The only way they could really be together? Ketchum was a logger and chose to remain one. Was it because he was estranged from his own children? Was by living like a nomad the only way he could not feel them missing?

"I suppose your mother was too proud to go back to Boston when she had the miscarriage - and she thought I was too young to be left alone when my mother died," Carmella heard Dominic telling Danny. "Rosie must have thought she had to take care of me, and of course she knew that I loved her. I don't doubt that she loved me, too, but I was still just a nice boy to her, and when she met Ketchum - well, he was her age. Ketchum was a man. We had no choice but to put up with it, Daniel - both Kecthum and I adored her, and in her own was I believed she loved the two of us."

But Ketchum had been estranged from his children; he'd already lost them. It wasn't necessarily true that Ketchum was braver, or more bold, than the cook. Ketchum wasn't a father, not anymore; he didn't have as much to lose. Danny only understood that his dad had been doing his best to look out for him. Leaving Twisted River had been a father's decision. And the cook and his son were both trying to look out for young Joe; their mutual fear for the boy had brought Danny and his dad closer.

How can you not see someone as important to you as that? Daniel Baciagalupo was thinking in the Iowa spring rain. More perplexing, his father had not seen Ketchum once in thirteen years. What was the matter with them? But half of Danny's mind was still unfocused - lost in the run-amuck chapter he was blundering about in.

The book throws loss and attachment in a fairly interesting way. Rosie being taken in by Dominic's mother when she was unmarried and pregnant. The act of kindness brings her close to Dominic but she still needs someone like Ketchum. Was the boy who made her pregnant all those years back in any way similar to Ketchum? When Rosie insists that both Dominic and Ketchum share her or that neither of them will have her, was she indeed suggesting a triangle or was it just they remain together as an act of completing one another? When Dominic and Danny leave Twisted River, they almost bid goodbye to their chance of living a normal life, though life in Twisted River may not have been exactly normal. Dominic didn't want to put Danny under any kind of risk though he only exchanged a physical risk with the risk of a lonely life. Eventually, Dominic and Danny had only each other. Why did Ketchum not see Dominic for thirteen years after Dominic left Twisted River? To erase the memory of their years together? But how much could be erased and if they eventually had to meet again, why even bother trying to erase it?

In her letter, Filomena wrote: "I warmly enjoyed your novel, as you no doubt intended - a generous amount of homage with a justifiable amount of condemnation. Yes, I took advantage of you - if only in the beginning. That you stayed with me for so long made me proud of myself, as I am proud of you now. And I'm sorry, if for a time, I made it hard for you to appreciate those inexperienced girls. But you must learn to choose more wisely, my dear - now that you're a little older that I was when we went our separate ways."

Seeing her naked and defiant made Danny realize that what had once attracted him to Katie now repelled him. He'd mistaken what was brazen about her for a kind of sexual courage; she'd seemed both sexy and progressive, but Katie was merely vulgar and insecure. What Danny had desired in his wife only now filled him with revulsion - and this had taken a mere two years to transpire. (The loving-her part would last a little longer; neither Danny nor any other writer could ever explain that.)

He was wondering what his life might have been like if he'd met someone like Lady Sky instead of Katie. Possibly, the skydiver had been closer to Danny's age than he'd first thought. Maybe some bad stuff had happened to her - things that made her look older, the writer imagined. (Danny didn't mean the scar from her cesarean section; he meant worse things.)

Danny goes through a number of women in his life and ends up writing about some of them. Was there ever a parallel between his aunt Filomena and his later wife Katie? The brazenness of his aunt in taking advantage of him was what he probably tried to replace with the brazenness in Katie. He had hoped that Katie's brazenness for a courage that he felt might have been lacking in Filomena. But finally, they ended up the same though Danny still writes well about both of them. It was strange how he awaited letters from Amy (Lady Sky as his on Joe called him). Maybe if he had met Amy before Katie, Amy might never have been jumping naked out of airplanes. He only then realizes he probably was not so badly off - the loss that would break him would only come much later.

When, after that year had passed, Danny Angel could finally bear to reread what he'd written in Baby in the Road, that accidental killing of that two year-old in diapers, which once began in the book, not to mention the subsequent of the dead toddler's parents, seemed almost inconsequential. Wasn't it worse to have a child escape death the first time, and grow up - only to die later, a young man in his prime? And to make the story worse in that way, in a novel - to make what happens more heartbreaking, in other words - well, wasn't that actually a better story? Doubtless, Danny believed so. He'd rewritten Baby in the Road from start to finish. This had taken five, almost six years.
Not surprisingly, the theme of the novel didn't change. How could it? Danny had discovered that the devastation of losing a child stayed very much the same; it mattered little that the details were different.

After the discovery that Lady Sky had written to him, Danny had received a few more letters from his fans who'd lost children, but he'd been unable to answer a single one of those letters. There were no words to say to those people. Danny knew, since he was one of them. He would wonder how Amy had managed it; in his new life, without Joe, Danny didn't think it would be all that hard to jump naked out of an airplane.

Amy had told him that she'd lost her little boy when she was much younger; she'd already lost him when Danny had met her as a skydiver. Amy's only child had died when he was two - little Joe's age at the pig roast. That death had aged Amy when it had happened, and for a number of years immediately following her boy's death. It wasn't that Amy was over her son's death - one never got over a loss like that, as she knew Danny would know. It was only that the loss didn't show as much, when so many years had passed. Maybe your child's death ceased being as visible to other people, after a really long time.

Danny actually rewrote the book about Joe's death. Was he expecting Joe to die to begin with? Danny worried about Joe from the very beginning - he probably was worried that Joe had his mother's recklessness. Was Amy driven to jumping out of airplanes by her boy's death? Joe called her Lady Sky and thought she was an angel. Would that have been the reason why she finally sought Danny out in the frozen wilderness? She was no angel is she couldn't be there for those who believed in her.

Sometimes, especially when Ketchum was drunk, Danny had seen the way the logger looked at his left hand; it was the way he had stared at his cast last night. If Injun Jane had seen Ketchum staring at his case, she might have taken this as a sign that Ketchum still thought about cutting off his hand. (But why the left one? Danny Baciagalupo would wonder. Ketchum was right-handed. If you hated yourself, if you were really taking yourself to task or holding yourself accountable, wouldn't you want to cut off your good hand?)

As Danny knew, the aspirin hadn't been "for the pain"; knowing Ketchum, Danny believed that the old riverman had probably relished the pain. The whiskey wasn't for the pain either. Both the aspirin and the whiskey, the writer knew, were strictly to keep Ketchum bleeding; the logger had little forgiveness for anyone who had a job to do and did a piss-poor job of it. (Only Ketchum could kill Ketchum, right?)

Little Joe was gone, but not a day passed in Daniel Baciagalupo's life when Joe wasn't loved or remembered. The cook had been murdered in his bed, but Dominic Baciagalupo had had the last laugh on the cowboy. Kecthum's left hand would live for ever on Twisted River, and Six-Pack had known what to do with the rest of her friend.

As for the river, it just kept moving, as rivers do - as rivers do. Under the logs, the body of the young Canadian moved with the river, which jostled him to and fro - to and fro. If, at this moment in time, Twisted River also appeared restless, maybe the river itself wanted the boy's body to move on, too - move on, too.

Ketchum wanted Twisted River to have his left hand in the same way Twisted River had taken Rosie. After all his left hand was Rosie's hand, his good hand. Ketchum maybe have felt that he let down Danny by letting Dominic get killed by the cowboy. But Danny was alive because of him - or at least the gun he gave Danny. Was that why Ketchum decided to end his life - because his duty to Dominic and Danny was done? Now he could give back to the river, the only part that was good in him. So finally, the river begins and ends everything.

He'd lost so much that was dear to him, but Danny knew how stories were marvels - how they simply couldn't be stopped. He felt that the great adventure of his life was just beginning - as his father must have felt, in the throes and dire circumstances of his last night on Twisted River.

The book has a beautiful ending. There are times when it is absolutely hilarious. Like all of John Irving's books, a pretty long one. But one hell of a read!

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