EXCERPT: 'Last Night in Twisted River'

Photo: Book Cover: Last Night in Twisted River: A Novel

John Irving's 12th novel, "Last Night in Twisted River," is the story of a 12-year-old boy and his father, both of whom are forced to become fugitives pursued by a constable across North America.

The two are befriended by a logger.

The decades-spanning tale is filled with humor, loss, tension and drama, rendered in the best-selling American novelist's distinctive storytelling style.

After reading the excerpt below, head to the "GMA" Library to find more good reads.

It wasn't principally "fireworks" that Ketchum brought to Boston, the first leg of his trip. The North Station was in that part of the West End that bordered on the North End. Ketchum got off the train, carrying a shotgun over one shoulder and a canvas duffel bag in the other hand; the duffel bag looked heavy, but not the way Ketchum was toting it. The gun was in a leather carrying case, but it was clear to everyone who saw the woodsman what the weapon was— it had to be either a rifle or a shotgun. The way the carrying case was tapered, you could tell that Ketchum was holding the barrel of the weapon with the butt- end over his shoulder.

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The kid who was then the busboy at Vicino di Napoli had just put his grandmother on a train. He saw Ketchum and ran ahead of him, back to the restaurant. The busboy said it appeared that Ketchum was "taking the long way around"—meaning that the logger must have looked at a map, and he'd chosen the most obvious route, which was not necessarily the fastest. Ketchum must have come along Causeway Street to Prince Street, and then intersected with Hanover— a kind of roundabout way to get to North Square, where the restaurant was, but the busboy alerted them all that the big man with a gun was coming.

"Which big man?" Dominic asked the busboy.

"I just know he's got a gun— he's carrying it over his shoulder!" the busboy said. Everyone who worked at Vicino di Napoli had been fore¬warned that the cowboy might be coming. "And he's definitely from up north— he's scary- looking!"

Dominic knew that Carl would have the Colt .45 concealed. It was big for a handgun, but no one carried a revolver over his shoulder. "It sounds like you mean a rifle or a shotgun," the cook said to the bus boy.

"Jesus and Mary!" Tony Molinari said.

"He's got a scar on his forehead like someone split his face with a cleaver!" the busboy cried.

"Is it Mr. Ketchum?" Carmella asked Dominic.

"It must be," the cook told her. "It can't be the cowboy. Carl is big and fat, but he's not especially 'scary- looking,' and there's not much of the north country about him. He just looks like a cop— either in or out of uniform."

The busboy was still babbling. "He's wearing a flannel shirt with the sleeves cut off, and he's got a huge hunting knife on his belt— it hangs almost to his knee!"

"That would be the Browning," Dominic said. "It's definitely Ketchum. In the summer, he just cuts the sleeves off his old flannel shirts— the ones that have torn sleeves, anyway."

"What's the gun for?" Carmella asked her dear Gamba.

"Maybe he's going to shoot me before Carl gets a chance to," Dom inic said, but Carmella didn't see the humor in it— none of them did. They went to the door and windows to look for Ketchum. It was that time of the afternoon they had to themselves; they were supposed to be eating their big meal of the day, before they started the dinner service.

"I'm setting a place for Mr. Ketchum," Carmella said, and she started to do so. The two younger waitresses were checking them¬selves out in a mirror. Paul Polcari held a pizza paddle in both hands; it was the size of a giant tennis racquet.

"Put the paddle down, Paul," Molinari told him. "You look ridiculous."

"There's a lot of stuff in the duffel bag he's carrying— ammunition, maybe," the busboy said.

"Dynamite, possibly," the cook said.

"The way the man looks, someone might arrest him before he gets here!" the busboy told them all.

"Why did he come? Why didn't he call first?" Carmella asked her Gamba.

The cook shook his head; they would all just have to wait and see what Ketchum wanted.

"He's coming to take you, Gamba, isn't he?" Carmella asked the cook.

"Probably," Dominic answered.

Even so, Carmella smoothed the little white apron over her black skirt; she unlocked the door and waited there. Someone should greet Mr. Ketchum, she was thinking.

What will I do in Vermont? the cook thought to himself. Who cares about eating Italian there?

Ketchum would waste little time with them. "I know who you are," he told Carmella pleasantly. "Your boy showed me your picture, and you haven't changed much." She had changed in the thirteen- plus years since that wallet photo had been taken— she was at least twenty pounds heavier, they all knew— but Carmella appreciated the compli¬ment. "Are you all here?" Ketchum asked them. "Or is someone in the kitchen?"

"We're all here, Ketchum," the cook told his old friend.

"Well, I can see you are, Cookie," Ketchum said. "And from your disapproving expression, you don't look too happy to see me."

Ketchum didn't wait for a response. He just walked into the back of the kitchen until they couldn't see him. "Can you see me?" he called to them.

They hollered, "No!"—all but the cook.

"Well, I can still see you—this is perfect," Ketchum told them. When he came out of the kitchen, he had the shotgun out of its car¬rying case; to a one, the cook included, they recoiled from it. The gun had a foreign smell— the gun oil, maybe, and the oil- stained leather case— but there was another smell, something truly foreign (even to cooks, even in a restaurant's dining room and kitchen). Maybe the smell was death, because guns are designed to do just one thing— kill.

"This here is an Ithaca twenty- gauge— a single shot, no safety. It's as sweet and simple as a shotgun comes," Ketchum told them. "Even a child can shoot it." He broke open the shotgun, allowing the barrel to fall almost to a forty- five- degree angle. "There's no safety because you have to cock it with your thumb before it'll fire— there's no half¬cock, either," the woodsman was saying. They watched, fascinated— all but Dominic.

Everything Ketchum said about the gun made no sense to them, but Ketchum kept patiently repeating himself. He showed them how to load it, and how to take out the empty shell— he showed them again and again, until even the busboy and the young waitresses could have done it. It broke the cook's heart to see the rapt attention Carmella gave to the old logger; even Carmella could have loaded and fired the damn shotgun by the time Ketchum had finished.

They didn't really comprehend the gravity of the demonstration until Ketchum got to the part about the two kinds of ammunition. "This here is buckshot. You keep the Ithaca loaded at all times with buckshot." Ketchum held up a big hand in front of Paul Polcari's flour- whitened face. "From back there, where I was standing in the kitchen, the buckshot would make a pattern about this size on a tar¬get standing here." They were getting the idea.

"You just have to see how it goes. If Carl is believing your story— and you all have to tell the cowboy the same story— maybe he'll leave without incident. No shots need to be fired," Ketchum was saying.

"What story is that?" the cook asked his old friend.

"Well, it's about how you walked out on this lady," Ketchum said, indicating Carmella. "Not that even a fool would, mind you—but that's what you did, and everyone here hates you for it. They would like to kill you themselves, if they could find you. Do any of you have trouble remembering that story?" Ketchum asked them. They shook their heads— even the cook, but for a different reason.

"Just so there's one of you back in the kitchen," Ketchum contin¬ued. "I don't care if the cowboy knows you're back there— just so he can't quite see you. You can be banging pots and pans around all you want to. If Carl asks to see you, and he will, just tell him you're busy cooking."

"Which one of us should be back in the kitchen with the gun?" Paul Polcari asked the woodsman.

"It doesn't matter which one of you is back there— just so you all know how to work the Ithaca," Ketchum answered. "You know Carl will come here, I suppose?" Dominic asked him.

"It's inevitable, Cookie. He'll want to talk to Carmella most of all, but he'll come here to talk to everyone. If he doesn't believe your story, and there's any trouble— that's when one of you shoots him," Ketchum said to them all.

"How will we know there's going to be trouble?" Tony Molinari asked. "How will we know if he believes our story?"

"Well, you won't see the Colt forty- five," Ketchum answered. "Be¬lieve me, he'll have it on him, but you won't know there's going to be trouble until you see the weapon. When Carl lets you see the Colt, he intends to use it."

"Then we shoot him?" Paul Polcari asked.

"Whoever's in the kitchen should call out to him first," Ketchum told them. "You just say something like, 'Hey, cowboy!'—just so he looks at you."

"It would seem to me," Molinari said, "that we'd have a better chance just to shoot him— I mean before he's looking in the direction of the shooter."

"No, not really," Ketchum told him patiently. "If the cowboy is looking in your direction, assuming you take aim at his throat, you'll hit him in the face and chest— both— and you'll probably blind him."

The cook looked at Carmella, because he thought she might faint. The busboy appeared to be feeling sick. "When the cowboy is blind, you don't have to be in as big a hurry— when you take the empty shell out and put the deer slug in. The buckshot blinds him, but the deer slug is the kill- shot," Ketchum explained to them. "First you blind him, then you kill him."

The busboy dashed for the kitchen; they could hear him barfing in the overlarge sink the dishwasher used to scour pots and pans. "Maybe he's not the one to be back in the kitchen," Ketchum said softly to the others.

"Hell, we used to jacklight deer in Coos County just like this. Shine the light on them, till the deer stared right at you. First the buckshot, then the deer slug." But here the woodsman paused before continuing. "Well, with a deer— if you're close enough— the buckshot will suffice. With the cowboy, we don't want to take any unnecessary chances." "I don't think we can kill anybody, Mr. Ketchum," Carmella said. "We simply don't know how to do that."

"I just showed you how!" Ketchum told her. "That little Ithaca is the simplest gun I own. I won it in an arm- wrestling match in Milan— you remember, don't you, Cookie?"

"I remember," the cook told his old friend. It had turned into something more serious than an arm- wrestling match, as Dominic re¬membered it, but Ketchum had walked away with the single- shot Ithaca— there was no disputing that.

"Hell, just work on your story," Ketchum told them. "If the story is good enough, maybe you won't have to shoot the bastard."

"Did you come all this way just to bring us the gun?" the cook asked his old friend.

"I brought the Ithaca for them, Cookie— it's for your friends, not for you. I came to help you pack. We've got a little traveling to do."

Dominic reached back for Carmella's hand— he knew she was standing behind him— but Carmella was quicker. She wrapped her arms around her Gamba's waist and burrowed her face into the back of his neck. "I love you, but I want you to go with Mr. Ketchum," she told the cook.

"I know," Dominic told her; he knew better than to resist her, or Ketchum.

"What else is in the duffel bag?" the busboy asked the logger; the kid had come out of the kitchen and was looking a little better.

"Fireworks— for the Fourth of July," Ketchum said. "Danny asked me to bring them," he told Dominic.

Carmella went with them to the walk- up on Wesley Place. The cook didn't pack many things, but he took the eight- inch cast- iron skillet off the hook in their bedroom; Carmella supposed that the skil¬let was mostly symbolic. She walked with them to the car- rental place. They would drive the rental car to Vermont, and Ketchum would bring the car back to Boston; then he would take the train back to New Hampshire from North Station. Ketchum hadn't wanted his truck to be missing for a few days; he didn't want the deputy sheriff to know he was away. Besides, he needed a new truck, Ketchum told them; with all the driving he and Dominic had to do, Ketchum's truck might not have made it. For thirteen years, Carmella had been hoping to meet Mr. Ketchum. Now she'd met him, and his violence. She could see in an instant what her Angelù had admired about the man, and— when Ketchum had been younger— Carmella could easily imagine how Rosie Calogero (or any woman her age) might have fallen in love with him. But now she hated Ketchum for coming to the North End and taking her Gamba away; she would even miss the cook's limp, she told herself.

Then Mr. Ketchum said something to her, and it completely won her over. "If, one day, you ever want to see the place where your boy perished, I would be honored to show you," Ketchum said to her. Carmella had to fight back tears. She had so wanted to see the river basin where the accident happened, but not the logs; she knew the logs would be too much for her. Just the riverbank, where the cook and young Dan had stood and seen it happen— and maybe the exact spot in the water— yes, she might one day want to see that.

"Thank you, Mr. Ketchum," Carmella said to him. She watched them get into the car. Ketchum, of course, was the driver.

"If you ever want to see me—" Carmella started to say to Dominic.

"I know," the cook said to her, but he wouldn't look at her.

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