A veteran enthusiast of John Irving's novels will yield to this story as a ballad and homage to his entire body of work--sprayed with a mist of Dylan. Readers unfamiliar with Irving may not be impressed--they will have a lot more to complain about. So don't start here if you are largely uninitiated with this author. Begin with his fourth book, the tour de force, The World According to Garp (Modern Library) or his masterpiece, A Prayer for Owen Meany (Modern Library). And then work your way through his oeuvre. The more Irving you have read, the more poignant and personally enriching is the symbolism and recurrent themes of this lugubrious tale; you will be less distracted by his prolixity. The opening epigraph is from Bob Dylan's "Tangled Up in Blue:" I had a job in the great north woods Working as a cook for a spell But I never did like it all that much And one day the ax just fell. I credit this stanza, as well as a sizable chunk of the song, as informing the story. After I read the last page of this novel, the lyrics from Dylan's song floated back to me. Although not a direct transposition (not at all), you could lift a considerable portion of that song, shake it up Irving style, and see them rising in the novel. And as Dylan stated (regarding this song), "You've got yesterday, today and tomorrow all in the same room, and there's very little you can't imagine not happening.'" Irving's non-linear narrative mirrors that statement. A fifty-year period (1950's to 2005) is covered, but it ebbs and flows non-sequentially within each section. (Sometimes on the same page.) And the unimaginable takes shape. I come from the veteran enthusiast's point of view. The familiar chords and refrains abound--bears; tragic accidents; his love affair with the semi-colon; fathers and sons; absent parents; odd couplings; hands; furry creatures; and working class cultures (that's just a start). Critical analysis aside, I was emotionally riveted by this story. My experience of loving this book went beyond the novel itself--I embraced the connection to his oeuvre. It is a river that flows into the sea. Although it is a tremendous story, it can't be entirely perceived in isolation. I frequently uttered, "Here we go" as my heart stopped, slowed, sped up, froze, and slammed into the channels of my soul. And like a river's flow, this epic journey expresses what is always changing, always the same with Irving's literature. For seasoned Irving readers, the vintage ribald humor will be noticeably tempered; his farce is minimized, and the story is less picaresque than usual, more mournful. He is still the master of telling a tragic event with bawdy details, but there is less rogue here, more lament. There are outlaw characters, but the rebel prose is not as evident. New readers may even describe it as cloying and overwritten. It should have bothered me, but the story overrode my criticism. He gets in the way of himself while inserting himself--but eventually he moves over again and gets out of the way to let his characters exhale. Never have I read so much Irving in Irving (or Irving on Irving); he would either diverge from Danny the writer into Irving-as-writer (while vehemently denying the memoirist aspects of fiction writing), or overshadow the narrative with proclamations, expository writing that felt like Irving apologia for Irving. And yet, these indulgences did not impair my absorption. They were more like narrator-as-Irving bursting through that fourth wall for something peevish to declare and then pulling back. The story is juicy and plump; the haunting beauty is stunning. The twisted narrative flows and echoes from his previous works and courses and tangles through and loops out like a billabong from the body of Irving--that remains interconnected to, but also separate from the arteries of his oeuvre. The characters are familiar but original--colorful anti-heroes with more than a touch of moral ambiguity, emblematic of past characters, but ripe and fresh. The taciturn cook, Dominic Baciapalugo, is restrained and reflective, while his blustering best friend, Ketchum, is strident and outrageous. They both deeply love and try to protect the cook's son, Danny, from the secrets that torment them. The women, for the most part, are big and briny and dimensional. Very few characters are mere conveniences--they are memorable and succulent and keep the story flowing. I experienced this novel as if it were alive. I could not put it down, and it moved me to tears. The narrative has shortcomings and needs editing, and, again, I think that readers new to Irving are going to find salient complaints and miss the meritorious connections. Understandable. This review may seem bewildering and inconsistent with my five-star assignation, but the humanity of this literature is a bent tree with many branches, and a twisted river. And I got soulfully tangled up in the blue, blue beauty of Irving's story.