Bloomsbury £20

Last Night in Twisted River, By John Irving

When John Irving's novels are this exceptional, he can return to his favourite tropes as often as he likes

Repetition, repetition, repetition: there are those critics who have long implied that John Irving – with his recurring themes, locations, motifs and misadventures – has been writing the same book since his breakthrough, The World According to Garp, in 1978. Last Night in Twisted River does not need such readers. While it is (partially) set in New England, contains deadly accidents, single-parent families, bears and young boys sexually awakened by older women, it is also the most poetic and powerful of Irving's work to date.

Repetition of all kinds is purely deliberate. Chapter one, in which a boy of 15 is swept to his death in a logging accident in Coos County, northern New Hampshire, in 1954, ends: "As for the river, it just kept moving, as rivers do – as rivers do. Under the logs, the body of the young Canadian moved with the river, which jostled him to and fro – to and fro..." The following 550 pages sweep across 51 years, and the ripples of this unhappy accident wash against the lives of a handful of people who scarcely knew the young victim.

The three men at the story's core are Ketchum, a crusty old logger, every inch the sort of hero you might find in the work of Cormac McCarthy, though here fully fleshed out; Dominic Baciagalupo, a kind-hearted chef with a limp and a secret; and Daniel, Dominic's son, 12 years old at the time of the accident and through whom we see the world shift from manual labour, through sexual and digital revolutions, to (almost) the present day. It is Daniel, unsettled at the death of the young logger, who sets the plot's wheels in motion when he mistakes Injun Jane, the woman his father is having an affair with, for a bear, and kills her with a skillet pan.

This being Irving, it is a pan with provenance, and until Daniel is told the truth about his past, said skillet waits fatefully for his entirely understandable misunderstanding. Daniel's guilt, then, is shared by his father. But there is no time to dwell on such things, as Jane's partner, Cowboy Carl, the volatile cop of Coos County, would love nothing more than to exact his own revenge on the snooty cook and his stuck-up kid.

Though the book is too subtle and gentle to trumpet itself as Irving's Great American Novel, the story of Dominic and Daniel, as they leave their past behind (we next catch up with them in Boston in 1967), is none the less the story of the United States itself. When good people have to leave or stay silent for fear of the violent reprisals of lawless lawmakers, Irving's parallels are clear. That history – the fall of Saigon, 9/11 – plays out on TV sets in the background to major events in the novel's own twisted tale is merely Irving, at his most masterly, making metaphorical mischief.

"It's not difficult to make the case that John Irving is the greatest American novelist of his generation," Irvine Welsh wrote recently. And beyond the simple fact that this is another great read, Irving is also, perhaps, the only modern American writer able to seamlessly merge the small detail with the significant event, while writing books that balance literary authority with mass-market appeal.

If there is a message to the repetition in his work, it is simply this: that we live in a world in which accidents happen, and that what we still call "dysfunctional families" have, without anyone really noticing, become the norm. Though his books have long charted this sociological shift, they are political largely in the personal sense. Towards the end of the novel, one of the many women in Daniel's life states flatly: "Conservatives are an extinct species, but they don't know it yet."

For all its loss, sadness, change and uncertainty, Twisted River is, then, like all Irving's best works, the sound of hope echoing gently against the madness of modern life.

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