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Wednesday, February 3, 2010

Last Night In Twisted River

(This is going to get creepy, but bear with me.  May contain spoilers.  You’ve been warned.)

Dear John:

This is hard for me to say because I love you.  Not as a person as we’ve never met.  I love you as a writer and a reader.  Your book “The Cider House Rules” made me want to be a “serious” writer.  I loved the intricate plots and memorable characters; I hoped to someday do something just as well.  Maybe I didn’t love the semicolon as much as you obviously did, or wrestling or Vienna or Exeter in its many forms, but part of love is overlooking faults, seeing only what we want to see.

It was in reading “Until I Find You” that I knew something was wrong.  It just didn’t make me feel the same as “Cider House Rules” or “World According to Garp.”  The story seemed like a jumbled mess, the plot elements borrowed from previous novels, and the characters unmemorable.  When you kept describing Jack’s “little guy” it got to the point where I almost couldn’t finish.  But I did in the vain hope it would get better.  It didn’t.  This failure left me shaken.  I said in my Amazon review that it was probably time to hang it up, mostly to spare me the grief of having to go through another experience like this again, one that might taint your considerable legacy.

When I heard about “Last Night In Twisted River” I felt a mixture of hope and dread.  Hope that maybe you’d exorcized your personal demons with “Until I Find You” and now the magic could return.  Dread that “Until I Find You” wasn’t an aberration.  I received my copy of the book in November, but I put off starting it for another two months because of this trepidation.

It didn’t take long for my fears to be validated.  I nearly fell asleep trying to read the first 50 pages of jumbled background about the characters.  You killed poor Angel on the very first page and yet it seemed in no time we were forced to endure the life story of the logging camp cook’s son Daniel and is father Dominic in addition to lengthy passages about the logging industry and Coos County, New Hampshire.

Maybe you could salvage it, I told myself.  Sadly not because of a serious miscalculation.  You have Danny accidentally kill a woman and then he and his father flee from Coos County—not before Dominic dumps the body in the house of Carl, the county’s resident cop and the woman’s lover.  Then you try to cast Carl as the villain, repeatedly referring to him as “crazy,” “stupid,” and “a coward.”  It never seemed to occur to you that Danny is the killer and he and Dominic the stupid cowards who try to frame the cop and then run away.

Moreover, you don’t have Dominic and Danny show much in the way of remorse for what they’ve done.  They certainly don’t show any remorse about framing Carl for murder.  Mostly, you indicate what an inconvenience and bother it is to noble Danny and Dominic to have to move from Boston to Iowa to Vermont to Canada.  You only compound this when you have Danny allow a friend to sic a vicious dog on another dog that had bothered Danny while he was running.  Certainly I didn’t expect Danny or Dominic to be saints, but these crimes are far greater than merely stealing a loaf of bread and yet you want us to believe that Danny and Dominic are the ones who are being persecuted.  Did you think that Carl should have just been cool about it when Dominic dumped his girlfriend’s body in his house so Carl would think he’d killed her?  Am I really supposed to believe his reaction was unjustifiable?  And how stupid are Dominic and Danny that they know Carl’s history and try this stunt anyway?  Didn’t they know it would only make things worse?  And did you really expect me to root for the ones who framed an innocent person (at least innocent of that particular crime) for murder?

Only compounding these mistakes further is that by constantly ridiculing Carl, you negate any value he might have as a menacing figure in Danny and Dominic’s lives.  He’s certainly no Chigurh in “No Country for Old Men.”  You probably should have read that book or at least watched the movie to get a better sense for how this is done.

Could I overlook these huge flaws?  Perhaps if there was a great story to go with it or some memorable characters.  Sadly the way the elements of the story play out is like a Greatest Hits collection of your previous works—and your own life.  Danny goes to Exeter like you did and Ruth did in “Widow for One Year” and Jack did in “Until I Find You” and Garp, Owen Meany, and the Berry family did in previous novels—though in thinly veiled versions of the original.  Then he goes to the University of New Hampshire like you did.  And he goes to the Iowa Writer’s Workshop to be a writer, like you did.  He even teaches there when you did and knows the same people, like the dearly departed Kurt Vonnegut.  Danny goes to Vermont like you did and then to Toronto like you did.  And yet you chide reporters for asking how much of Danny’s novels are autobiographical.  The sad hypocrisy of this made me laugh.

Even sadder is that these interludes added nothing to the story.  We’re introduced to a bevy of Asian characters in Iowa as well as Lady Sky the naked parachutist, but none of them have any impact on the overall story.  It’s the same everywhere else Danny and Dominic goes.  They meet people and things happen to them, but none of these seem to matter.  By the time the book ended, there were very few of them I could actually name and it would be harder still for me to list any purpose they served.  The only interesting character in the book was Ketchum the logger and only because he reminded me of Yukon Cornelius in the old “Rudolph the Red-Nosed Reindeer” special. 

I saw that you described the book as a “political novel” but I failed to see anything political about it.  Ketchum rants about George W Bush and Danny meets a woman who allows him to knock her up so he can avoid Vietnam but those are the only “political” elements that I could make out in all of this.  Really the criticism of Bush on September 11th struck me as writing in hindsight.  I’m not a Bush lover by far but there seemed nothing original or fresh about Ketchum’s rants.  They didn’t add anything and they certainly didn’t open my mind to any new insights about the situation.  Not the way “Cider House Rules” did.

The book jacket tries to make the case that Coos County is a microcosm of America in the last 50 years and how hate has driven us apart.  Or something like that.  Maybe this is supposed to be why the novel is “political.”  In that case, who do Danny and Dominic represent?  Who does Carl represent?  I don’t really see it.  Maybe at some point I will.

At any rate, now is the time to say goodbye.  We’ve had some wonderful times since I first picked up “The Cider House Rules;” nothing will ever be able to take those away from us.  But like all good things, this must come to an end.  I’m sure you’ll land on your feet as you still have millions of loyal, adoring fans who seem far more able to overlook the flaws I’ve noted above.  Given time I’m sure I’ll find another author to love, though perhaps not as much.  Certainly you’ll always be my first and for that I’m grateful.

Best of luck to whatever you do next.

BJ Fraser

PS:  For a novel more closely resembling vintage Irving classics, check out “Where You Belong” by Patrick Dilloway

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