Nobody ever died of old age in a John Irving novel. As Dominic Baciagalupo, a cook in the American logging settlement of Twisted River, puts it, his is "a world of accidents". You can get a long way through this slab of a book before encountering any evidence that an accident need not always be disastrous.
On page one, there is a drowning. The first chapter boasts a litany of calamities that range from a broken ankle to the unpleasant, timber-related ends that various relatives of Ketchum, a logger, may or may not have met. Ketchum himself is a fighter, fond of verbally tearing new assholes for the world's wrongdoers (and happy to suit the action to the word with any miscreant fool enough to come within range), although his gale-force rants aren't necessarily truthful. He is the first of several characters whom Irving deploys, the main one being Dominic's son, Danny.
Danny Baciagalupo is 12 in 1954 when another boy, Angel, drowns beneath logs in the town river and Ketchum breaks his wrist trying in vain to fish him out. He is a frightened child in a violent place, half aware that he lives among stories told and untold that thicken the air like the food fumes from Dominic's kitchen. Those stories will make him a novelist in later life but they will also play a direct part in the book's central event: Danny's inadvertent killing of a woman, and the Baciagalupos' subsequent flight from her boyfriend, Carl, and his avenging pistol.
Irving's fluency is astonishing. He renders incidental detail riveting and extraneous explanations - of which there are many - absorbing. When the adult Danny takes to spending winters writing on an isolated Canadian island, Irving manages to convey all his heating, water-fetching and bathing arrangements without causing the reader to chuck the book across the room and run yelping for the nearest John Cheever story. This gift is vital, because the prose is usually the only forward-flowing element. Irving sends the Baciagalupos to Boston, Vermont, the Midwest and eventually Canada over 50 years, but he doesn't send them straight. What with Dominic's memories, Ketchum's tales and the novels Danny eventually writes, the chronology of this book has more twists and kinks than any river.
When he is not holding the reader in suspense so he can mooch back through the past (a couple of old enemies walk into Dominic's Vermont restaurant on page 250; it's page 334 before the cook discovers who's ordering pizza out front), Irving offers hints of what is coming up. This manipulation should be irritating, but every place and time he takes us to is so full of intriguing stories, musings and events that - like the Baciagalupos - the reader longs to take up residence, put down roots and try her best to hang around for a while.
Still, as Carl might say, everything has its price. This is Irving's 12th novel and, as ever, the surface shines like midwinter ice in his beloved New Hampshire, but the emotions roiling beneath stay largely hidden. Five children die in this book, yet we never really enter the stricken parents' pain. This absence of empathy in the face of lethal violence is morally problematic; it is also the saddest element of a book that can be read as a tale of never-ending harm. We know Irving will tie up everything neatly later on, because he has warned us that he will (real-life stories, Danny muses, are "never whole, never complete in the way that novels could be"). Yet that doesn't help. In fact, Irving's interest in breaking down the writerly process hinders our empathy: it's cleverly done, but most readers are disinclined to clap and cry at the same time.
It is cunning to show Danny the celebrated writer being irritated at critics excavating his books for autobiographical scraps, particularly because they are really autobiographical in nature, but this excessive reflexivity is hardly likely to stop us squinting at him to see how much of Irving he contains; indeed, it makes the temptation greater than ever. And this prevents us from caring about what happens to Danny the character. Watching a thinly disguised Irving wrestle with literary problems is fascinating. But it's not moving.
What moves Irving, apart from the problems of writing his many-splendoured novels? Bears, perhaps - and incongruously placed dead dogs, which pop up all over his work. There is also the parlous state of America. This book, with its chain of violence, can be viewed as a glum comment both on Americans' love affair with guns and, more broadly, on their country's determination to bludgeon other nations into doing its bidding.
“Was enough ever enough," Danny wonders, "or did the violence just perpetuate - that is, whenever something began violently?" The answer to both parts of this question would appear to be yes, but why butt in, rather than leaving the reader to work that out? Or is Irving worried that we will notice the discrepancy between the world of accidents and the chain of violence? If Carl and Ketchum, both hate-filled advocates of gun culture, respect each other's capacity for violence so much that they go to such extraordinary lengths to leave each other in peace, then enough can be enough only if everyone is armed. But of course, in a world of accidents, the last thing anyone should ever have is a gun.
How to protect ourselves from calamity and live to die of old age is the everlasting question; and there is no complete answer to it - not even, pace Irving, in a novel.
Nina Caplan is arts editor of Time Out
Last Night in Twisted River
Bloomsbury, 576pp, £20