Literary Criticism and Significance

John Irving’s Last Night at Twisted River is a story that focuses on the nature of identity. The opening scene in the book sets the main characters, Dominic and Daniel, on a trajectory that sets the scenes for the rest of the novel. As they escape from the consequences of an unfortunate accident, their lives become a series of accidents.

The different settings in the novel provide the plot points as Dominic and Daniel stop along the way. Each place is an episode in their peripatetic lives. This transience makes it difficult for the characters to “settle” on an identity. The question of ones’ identity reaches the forefront of the novel as Daniel becomes a famous author and must defend what is fiction from what is reality, or his autobiography. His celebrity interferes with his art.

Critics have focused on the parallels between Daniel’s life as a writer and Irving’s experiences. Is this meta-fictional treatment effective? Danny and Irving both went to Iowa for the Writer’s Workshop, were mentored by Kurt Vonnegut, and had a novel about abortion made into an Oscar-winning film. This treatment allows Irving a method to communicate a message about the nature of fiction in a celebrity-driven culture. It has become more important to learn “what is truly autobiographical” than to interpret the novel as art. Irving appears to be stating that the art of fiction is superseded by a fascination with the banal; something is lost in translation from author to reader.

The Los Angeles Times noted that Irving recycles signature themes in the novel: New England; Christian symbolism; a fractured family. However, other critics like his carefully sculpted story. As a veteran writer, Iriving provides a story that is both introspective and retrospective.

Irving’s craft is based on his appreciation and devotion to the nineteenth-century novel. He uses suspense, cliffhanger endings, and coincidences to move the plot forward. With those tools, Irving presents a story that is with a randomness that illustrates the unpredictable nature of life, with or without accidents. When Lady Sky appears in Dominic’s life, she literally falls into his lap. This is an accident by any measure, but one that holds strong thematic value to the novel as a whole. Danny receives her and never really has let her go, until she returns to his life much later. Irving’s balance of unusual characters ballasted by real historical events provides an entertaining read.