John Irving—Twisted River, A Writer Drifts Through Life

L’Ange Protecteur (Guardian Angel) hovering over an unsuspecting Iowa farm, Niki de St. Phalle, Mingei International Museum, San Diego.

A guardian angel looks down on Iowa. A scene from John Irving’s novel Last Night in Twisted River takes place on a small pig farm not far from Iowa City. A pig was roasting in a makeshift barbeque pit not far from the pigsty where the surviving pigs seem oblivious to the irony of the situation.

The party was in full swing, and the graduate students hosting the party had a surprise for their guests: a skydiver had been hired to drop in on the party. A small plane carrying the skydiver appeared in the clear blue sky and circled the farm.

The writer Danny Baciagalupo, a guest lecturer at the Writers’ Workshop at the Iowa City university was standing near the barbeque pit with his small son Joe. The writer’s son saw something fall from the plane. The boy pointed up:

“What’s coming down?” Joe asked his dad.
“A skydiver,” Danny told the boy.

Their conversation continued as Danny’s wife Katie joined them:

“A ‘what’ in the sky?” the two-year-old said.
“A person with a parachute,” Danny said, but this made no sense to little Joe.
“A what?”
“A parachute keeps the person from falling too fast—the person is going to be all right,” Danny was explaining, but Joe clung tightly to his father’s neck. Danny smelled the marijuana before he realized that Katie was standing next to them.
“Just wait—keep watching,” she said, floating away again.
“A ‘sky’ something,” Joe was saying. “A para-what?”
“A skydiver, a parachute,” Danny repeated. Joe just stared, open-mouthed, as the parachute drifted down to them. It was a big parachute, the colors of the American flag.

Meanwhile, the pigs are beginning to take notice of the skydiver and the billowing parachute; The pigs mill excitedly about the pigsty while Joe talks to his dad:

The skydiver’s breasts were the first giveaway.
“It’s a lady,” little Joe said.
“Yes, it is,” his father replied.
“What happened to her clothes?” Joe asked.

Now everyone was watching, even the pigs. Danny hadn’t noticed when the pigs began to be aware of the parachutist, but they were aware of her now. They must not have been used to flying people dropping down on them—or used to the giant descending parachute, which now cast a shadow over their pig pen.

“Lady sky!” Joe screamed, pointing up at the naked skydiver.
When the first pig squealed and started to run, the other pigs all snorted and ran. That may have been when Lady Sky saw where she was going to land—in the pig pen. The angry skydiver began to swear.

The skydiver was a large woman, a blond-haired Amazon; she was stark naked in her skydiver’s harness. Her giant parachute was red, white and blue like the American flag and it cast a shadow on the pigsty—oh yes, she was falling out of sky directly toward the pigsty, which was sloppy wet with pig manure.

Up to this point the pigs had been pretty calm, but the parachute was too much . . .

Danny waded into the pigsty to help the skydiver get untangled. Lady Sky, stark naked and covered with pig-grime, crawled out of the pigsty and strode over to one of the graduate students that she seemed to know. She punched him with a closed fist, added some choice curses to her blessing and marched off with Danny in tow towards the shower in the farmhouse.

Logging on the Androscoggin River in New Hampshire. Historical Photo.

Last Night in Twisted River is John Irving’s semi autobiographical story of Danny the writer. The epic tale describes nearly fifty years of Danny’s life in detail.

As the story opens, Danny is 12 years old and living in a logging camp on the banks of the fictional Twisted River in New Hampshire upstream of the Androscoggin River that flows through Berlin where the paper mills are located. Danny’s father is Dominic the camp cook. Dominic is called  ‘Cookie’ by everyone.

There was a logjam on Twisted River that blocked journey of the logs down river to the mills in Berlin. The loggers tried to free the logs:

The young Canadian, who could not have been more that 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.

The logger who broke his wrist trying to save the drowned logger is Ketchum, a brute of a man, wild, and a bar-room brawler. Ketchum is dedicated to Danny and his father Dominic, but he doesn’t always succeed in protecting those he loves.

Logs floating in the Androscoggin River near Berlin, NH. Source: Bethel Historical Society.

Accidents were a way of life in the logging camps; Danny’s mother was killed when she fell into the Androscoggin River. A few years later, Danny, at the age of 12, went after a bear attacking his father. Danny was armed only with a frying pan and accidentally kills Ketchum’s lover Injun Jane who looks like a bear. This accident angered the town’s constable Carl, who is a brutal, uncouth, uneducated good-for-nothing that Ketchem calls the Cowboy.

Thinking that Cowboy Carl, the feared constable of Twisted River, is after them, Danny and his dad fled Twisted River. They headed for Boston and that is where the story picks up again. There’s lots of story ahead for the reader (Boston, Vermont, Iowa, Toronto) before the snowy climax on Lake Ontario when the Lady Sky returns to try to save Danny from the worst that could happen to a writer.

Irving’s long rambling story is just getting started when Danny and his dad arrive in Boston—Dominick must learn restaurant cooking, and Danny, the future writer, hasn’t written word one.

Last Night in Twisted River is a long rambling novel with a weak plot that, at times, tested my concentration. The cast of characters is superb, none of them are truly normal, and all of them are memorable.

The Twisted River epilogue is from the third verse a very popular song of 1974:

I had a job in the great north woods
Working as a cook for a spell
But I never did like it all that much
And one day the ax just fell
—Bob Dylan, Tangled Up In Blue

The song continues:

So I drifted . . .

Drifting, that is the story of Danny’s life; a good novel by John Irving.

Week 22-2012: Last Night in Twisted River: A Novel, John Irving (2009, Google eBook).

You can see the Guardian Angel (L’Ange Protecteur) by Niki de St. Phalle at the Mingei International Museum, San Diego.

About carto

Retired software engineer who grew up in Montana, went to Montana State College in Bozeman, and moved to California to work at Stanford Research Institute (SRI). Carto's Logbook is about photography, travel and adventure; Mt. Maurice Times is tall tales mostly biographical; Carto's Library is about books I've read and liked.
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