The unsettling themes of tragedy and untimely death haunt John Irving’s latest novel. As Kelly Apter discovers, the American author finds no pleasure in writing about the unthinkable

I n the closing chapter of John Irving’s epic new novel, Last Night in Twisted River, a character struggles to find the opening line for his latest book. He agonises over it for a morning, then puts it to one side and 24 hours later hits pay dirt.

Which is considerably quicker than Irving himself. It took the award-winning author no less than two decades to come up with the crucial one line which would allow him to write Twisted River. ‘I’ve lived with these characters and this story longer than I have with any other book,’ says Irving. ‘A story about a cook and his son who become fugitives that’s been in my head for 20 years. But I never begin a book until I have the last sentence and this one eluded me for a while. So I wrote a number of other books, because I saw the exact ending to those stories quicker than I saw this one.’ The aforementioned fugitives are Dominic and Daniel Baciagalupo, a father and son team forced to go on the run from a crazed cowboy after a tragic accident in the New Hampshire town of Twisted River. Spanning five decades, from 1954 to 2005, the novel features many of Irving’s trademark subjects New England schools, writing, bears, wrestling and, most crucially, death. The three central characters, Dominic, Daniel and their wildman friend Ketchum, are all rich in detail, but then so too are the minor ones. It doesn’t matter how brief an appearance you make in an Irving novel, chances are he’ll give you a back-story.

‘That’s something that comes from the earliest fiction I admired, that made me want to become a novelist in the first place,’ says Irving. ‘Those

28 THE LIST 22 Oct–5 Nov 2009