THE LAST CHAIRLIFT by John Irving (Knopf Canada, 912 pages). $45. Rating: NNNN
After seven years, 80-year-old John Irving returns with his fifteenth novel in a storied and celebrated career that includes The Hotel New Hampshire, A Prayer For Owen Meany, A Widow For One Year, Until I Find You, and In One Person, books that place him at the heart of our culture, a Dickens for our time.
Narrator Adam Brewster, born in 1941 to an unwed mother, is a novelist and screenwriter in many ways a cipher for Irving himself: his fourth novel, for example, his first bestseller, makes him “self-supporting as a writer,” just as The World According To Garp did in 1978. Almost a quarter of this one, however, is written as a screenplay (remember Irving won an Academy Award for best adapted screenplay of The Cider House Rules), a choice that spurs the narrative drive, even though at times the content is repetitive.
Adam’s lesbian mother Rachel, a.k.a. Little Ray, is a diminutive expert skier who spends many months of each year of his childhood away from him, so he is raised by his grandmother who he considers his “winter mom.” Nana Brewster reads him Moby-Dick, and young Adam becomes enthralled, a fact that his older cousin Nora insists “shaped and screwed up” the rest of his life, a life we witness unfold over seven decades.
If, like me, you are an Irving completist, you will warm to the familiar themes and tropes – wrestling, sexual politics, secrets, war, perverse accidental death, euthanasia, grief, empathy, love – and first-person narrative of this meandering brick-of-a-novel that is as much about the writing life as it is about finding belonging in our own lives.
Many of the characters are outsiders, perhaps even iconoclasts, who push against conformity, like Nora, who interprets her partner Em’s pantomime in their comedy club show of biting political and social satire, Two Dykes, One Who Talks. “The snowshoer,” the little Phillips Exeter Academy English teacher Elliot Barlow, marries Adam’s mom, takes to wearing her clothes, cross-dressing for pleasure in their little New England town, eventually coming out as a transgender woman in her forties.
Because Adam writes fiction, Mr. Barlow rightly observes he’s a worrier with a heightened imagination for worst-case scenarios. But Adam is also correct when he notes, “When you love someone who’s different, you worry about them more – you’re always looking out for them.” He explains, “The sexual-minority subject had been near-constant background music in the years I was growing up.” These outliers, nevertheless, are devoted to family life and, as Little Ray’s long-time love Molly reminds Adam, “There’s more than one way to love people.” Family is who loves you.
Love abounds in this story and takes many forms as the characters push up against the troubled history of their time including the Vietnam War, the AIDS crisis and the rise of tyranny with the election of Trump in 2016. Irving faces it all head on, defaulting to compassion at every opportunity. But violence is a part of Irving’s imaginative universe. Corpses stack up as in a Shakespearean tragedy: car crashes, train derailment, avalanche, murder, electrocution, suicide, AIDS and fright all snuff out lives along the way. Darlings are not spared. It’s not fair; neither is real life.
There are ghosts, real and imagined, who keep Adam company and also torment him in his quest to discover who his father is. He freely acknowledges that “not every ghost is seen by everyone.” Yet he is comforted decades later when his own son Matthew sees the ghosts of his grandparents larking about on Toronto’s TTC and matter-of-factly reports: “They’re not getting any older – all those two do is goof around.”
Although the repetitive aspects of the plot may be trying at times, it is Irving’s affection and empathy for his characters that shines. Little Ray is right: “We have to be who we are.” And her “one and only” Adam is right, too: we do meet people who change our lives. In person and in words.
Janet Somerville (@janetsomerville) is the author of Yours, For Probably Always: Martha Gellhorn’s Letters Of Love & War 1930-1949, available now in audio, read by Tony Award-winning Ellen Barkin.