Last Night In Twisted River is the I’m Not There of John Irving novels. Like Todd Haynes’ attempts to turn Bob Dylan into a figure of myth in that film, Irving playfully invents a story that’s as much about the pleasures of reading one of his novels as it is anything else, until it poignantly turns into a paean for a dying art and a plea for the idea of the story. This could all seem self-indulgent. Instead, it’s Irving’s best since the ’80s.
As a novelist, Irving simultaneously seems to invite questions of how much of his work is autobiographical, and to laugh those questions off. Twisted River is singularly obsessed with this question. It warns at every turn of trying to see too much of a novelist in his characters, while at the same time, the career path of the fictional novelist at the center of the book is a dead ringer for Irving’s in almost every way, right down to having Kurt Vonnegut (who makes a cameo) as a mentor. The book is also filled with wry, funny self-commentary, as when Irving’s protagonist, novelist Danny Angel, reflects on how critics and friends hounded him for putting a semicolon in the title of one of his novels; Irving then puts a semicolon in the very next chapter title.
But if that was all there was to Twisted River, it couldn’t sustain itself for its 550-plus pages. The usual treats of an Irving novel—generosity with his characters, a gentle sense of humor, great plotting—are ever-present, as are his usual obsessions and plot points, right down to a seeming bear attack that kicks the whole story off. Irving’s playfulness this time—he’s gleefully self-aware about how all this will be interpreted—goes a long way, but what makes the book, finally, one of the year’s best is the supremely moving conclusion, when the novel abruptly shifts into an attempt to confront the chief horrors of the decade.
Irving so skillfully lulls readers into complacency that when events in the news, like the 2000 election, begin to crop up on the edges of the narrative, it can feel, at times, like an unnecessary intrusion of the real world onto Irving’s fictional construct. But Irving specifically intends to provoke that effect. When his comic tale enters the 2000s, sadness begins to poke through the façade of lightheartedness, and Irving’s characters begin to feel real despair just as surely as the United States does. The real world is just another damn thing they have to carry around, just another disruption of their happiness, as though their pain could sweep out over a whole nation, a whole planet.
And that ultimately gets at what Irving is going for. Since his protagonist is a novelist, he’s keenly aware of the ways life is like and unlike a novel, of the way real people coalesce into the archetypes we call “characters,” and the way coincidental events in real life—like the novel’s magnificently strange inciting incident—would play if they showed up in the pages of a story. What Irving wants more than anything else is to turn the whole world into a story with a happy ending, and while he can give his Twisted River characters a moment of grace in the end, what makes the novel ache so is the fact that he can’t give us the soft landing we hope for.