My favorite John Irving book used to be The Cider House Rules, but now I think it is going to have to be Last Night in Twisted River, though really all the Irving novels I have read are such good stories that it is hard to decide which I like best. To be honest, I listened to this one, but I have to say I think Irving's rhythm of storytelling lends itself to a good old fashioned read aloud. I started in college or just after with The World According to Garp and have kept up with most of his fiction since then. I will admit to starting Son of the Circus and not being able to get very far. I may need to give it another go.
One of the most profound elements of Last Night in Twisted River is its insight on the process of writing. One of the main characters, Danny Angel, or Daniel Baciagalupo is a novelist. Irving's comments about writing really struck me. I cannot be 100% certain this is Irving speaking through the character, but evidence from this and his other writings seem to point this way.
"You've got to let yourself go, Danny." Ketchum was saying. "Be more daring."
"I'm a beer drinker, Ketchum - no red wine for me, " Danny told him.
"For Christ's sake - I mean, as a writer!" Ketchum said.
"As a writer?" Danny asked.
"You keep skirting around the darker subjects," Ketchum told him. "You have a way of writing around the periphery of things."
"I do?" Danny asked him.
"You do. You seem to be dodging the squeamish stuff," Ketchum told him. "You've got to stick your nose in the worst of it, and imagine everything, Danny." (p. 488 - Hardcover)
And that's what Irving does, he writes about life as it is with all its messy, unpleasant, harsh realities, but his stories are not depressing, not hopeless, but hopeful and triumphant.
This isn't Mr. Irving's story, it is that of Daniel and his father Dominic and maybe even more strikingly Ketchum, people who are real, which made me sad to leave them at the end. Though Irving knew when it was time to end the story I really enjoyed my time with these people and felt loss when it was over.
The story mainly follows Dominic, a cook, and his son Danny through half a century. It is impossible to describe what the story is "about." I do not envy the inside cover blurb writers for Irving's books, but Dominic and Danny move from place to place, essentially on the run from a tangible danger as well as from each life they build then must leave behind. The structural time shifts of the novel are fascinating. Just when you think a huge chunk of time has been skipped, Irving circles back, and circles back is an apt description because the story always comes up to meet itself just where it left off. It's brilliant.
Near the end of the novel is another significant statement about story writing,
"...Danny knew how stories were marvels - how they simply couldn't be stopped." (p. 554 - Hardcover)
I hope Mr. Irving's stories will not stop for a good long while.