A man and his son spend a life on the lam after the son mistakenly commits murder.
The writing life, even when you're a famous novelist, isn't easy. This is especially true in John Irving's latest novel, "Last Night in Twisted River," a book with the Dickensian scope that Irving is known for. Some of his recurring themes show up here: violence, incestuous relationships, bears, oddball characters and wrestling. There's no real surprise; they are precisely the themes the reader expects from Irving.
It's not a huge stretch of the imagination for a writer to write about a writer, but Irving somehow manages to make Daniel Baciagalupo's life story colorful. The novel follows young Danny from the 1950s in a New Hampshire logging camp to 2005 on a Canadian island. His father, Dominic, is a talented cook who walks with a limp. Their close friend, Ketchum, is an outspoken logger whose catchphrase, "Constipated Christ," fits him perfectly. When Danny is 12, he and Dominic flee the logging camp after Danny mistakes his father's large girlfriend for a bear and kills her with a skillet. "Injun Jane" wasn't just his father's girlfriend. She also happened to live with Constable Carl, a mean-spirited cop referred to as "the cowboy."
Dominic's chief concern is protecting his son from Carl's wrath, so most of the rest of the novel follows the two as they move from Boston to Iowa to Vermont to Canada, changing their names and hiding with the help of Ketchum.
The book is long and sometimes bogs down with repetition. Irving has a habit of hammering certain words and phrases over and over, just in case the reader didn't catch it the first time (as when he constantly refers to Dominic's "beloved" Daniel).
But the characters are endearing, and the heavy-handed symbolism becomes something epic and cinematic. Like his other books, "Last Night in Twisted River" mixes old-fashioned sensibilities with the craziness of the modern world.
The world according to Irving is an unpredictable yet ironic one. "It was a world of accidents, right? Perhaps it was wise not to be too confrontational in such a world."
His is also a world where people can be tremendously resilient. At one point, Daniel looks out of his writing window at a bent pine tree. He noticed "that the little tree had a simultaneously tenacious and precarious grip on its own survival."
Much like the tree, Daniel weathers the elements of his existence and the world around him, and his roots are all that he has to depend on.
Michele Filgate is a New Hampshire-based writer.