Lá Nua

Lúnasa Records 001

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A new Lúnasa recording is a challenge for reviewers. One hears it, recognizes its brilliance from note one, but is left scrambling to find words that explain why. Maybe it’s Paul Meehan’s aggressive chording that sets the tone for brawny sets such as “Ryestraw.” Or is it the way Kevin Crawford’s whistles swoop and dive through Seán Smyth’s flowing fiddle passages? Maybe it’s Crawford laying down double time flute to open the “Fruitmarket Reels” as if it was the final stride of a sprint, but then quickens the pace and converts the set into a distance event. Then again, it might be Cillian Vallely using his Uilleann pipes to set a Breton mood on “Tro Breizh” and picking up the dancers’ feet on “Snowball.” Or is it Trevor Hutchinson laying down dreamy bass lines on “Unapproved Road” or taking a bold lead on the Spanish-flavored “Pontevedra to Carcarosa” set that builds an edifice that fiddle, pipes, and flute decorate? What is it about Lúnasa? The complex warp and weave of tunes, or the big finish? The breakneck reels or pastoral departures such as “The Raven’s Rock” and “Island Lake” that evoke pleasant vales and halcyon summer days? You figure it out; I’ll simply call the latest another ineffable masterpiece.


John Irving's Twisted River Masterfully Plotted

Last Night in Twisted River (20100

By John Irving

New York: Ballantine Books 978--0-345-47973-0

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John Irving is one of America’s most celebrated fiction writers, though he also has a reputation for being egoistic and testosterone-poisoned, and is occasionally taken to task for recycling ideas. His latest, Last Night in Twisted River, encapsulates reasons for both the praise and the pans.

Let’s get this out of the way first. Armchair psychologists might well conclude that Irving needs to get more in touch with his feminine side. Even the strong women in Twisted River have a habit of being dominated by men, Irving is often crude in describing sex, and he flashes a Leonard Nimoy-like fascination for those who are large and/or grossly obese. And, yes, some of the same plot devices reappear: wrestling, Exeter Academy, the Vietnam War, a character who’s a writer, and bears…. Moreover, Irving admits that he is the template for the character of Daniel. So why such a high rating for the book?

Simply this: John Irving can tell a story better than just about anyone alive. You may find yourself wanting to scream at Irving at times, but you’ll keep on reading because whatever else Twisted River might be, it’s a helluva story. The adjective sprawling doesn’t even begin to describe this five-generation tale that takes us from the backwoods of New Hampshire to Boston’s North End to Iowa, to Brattleboro, Vermont, to Toronto, to Colorado, to an island in Lake Ontario. The character Dominic Baciagalupo ties it all together. We first meet him as a New Hampshire logging camp cook in 1954, where he’s a single dad and an organic intellectual amidst hard-living, hard-drinking, and prone-to-violence backwoodsmen and scruffy women who grow old before their time. The book’s most-memorable character is grizzled logger Ketchum, who is simultaneously Dominic’s best friend, a rival, and his son Danny’s guardian angel. Something happens--and it would be unfair to say what--that sends Dominic and Danny on the lam for nearly fifty years, their safety dependent upon Ketchum.

There are a lot of characters and places in this novel, but if you know nothing else about his work you know this: Irving doesn’t use throwaway language, scenarios, characters, or filler. We find ourselves drawn into his work because one thing will invariably link to several others; there is, simply, no time to get bored or allow passages to induce stupor. As we read, we encounter things that just seem so odd that we can’t imagine why they’re in the book--a frying pan, a drowned kid, a naked female skydiver, an axe, a libertarian Vermonter with a mean dog, gourmet food--and it’s hard not to be impressed when Irving assumes the role of the Moirae and weaves everything together and plays out the threads of each character’s fate. It’s equally eye-popping to observe Irving craft what is essentially a series of tragic tales, yet also incorporate sections that are side-splittingly funny. Making Danny a celebrated writer (!) and employing the device of a story-within-a-story certainly helps, but it is nonetheless a very difficult thing to make readers laugh at characters in jeopardy.

Irving’s tale is so rich that I hesitate to say more. I do, however, wish to add kudos for the way in which Irving dealt with social class. With the exceptions of Richard Russo and Carolyn Chute, few other American writers “get” the rhythms of the upper lower class as well as Irving did in Twisted River. I came from said stock and knew people like his loggers, “cowboy” constable, worn-down women, and survivalist backcountry folk. These are the disposables often labeled “trailer trash,” “rednecks,” and “hillbillies,” as if they were a dirt-caked Other unworthy of consideration. Irving hits the right notes in showing their charming side and resilience, as well as why most middle-class people quake in their boots when they encounter such people. Call it Deliverance comes to rural New England.

You may not love reading this novel, but it’s nearly impossible to put it down. More to the point, it sticks in your mind like logging camp chow sticks to your ribs. And when it’s all said and done, isn’t thinking about a book weeks after you’ve finished it the measure of powerful fiction?