Tag Archives: coming-of-age

The Last Chairlift by John Irving

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Think of your first good kiss. Was it life-changing, or was it no big deal? Do you remember how old you were? Did it matter, at the time, who gave it to you? Do you even remember who it was?
I’ll tell you this: when you’re thirteen and your mother gives you your first good kiss, you better hope someone matches it or eclipses it—soon. That’s your only hope.

Autobiography just isn’t good or bad enough to work as fiction… Unrevised, real life is just a mess.

The overall format is one of a frame, with Adam Brewster opening by letting us know that this is the story of his life and times, then returning to turn out the lights when the tale has been completed. It is a family saga of Irving’s era, 50’s 60s, (Vietnam) 70s, 80s (Reagan, AIDS) et al, to the mad, reactionary violence of the 21st century. Adam Brewster, a writer and screenwriter, is our narrator for a look at the sexual politics of a lifetime, from his birth in 1941 to his later days some eighty years on.

Adam’s mother, Rachel Brewster (Little Ray), was a nearly-pro ski nut, who spent large parts of every year on the slopes, settling for work as an instructor. That left Adam in the hands of his grandmother for much of his upbringing, assisted by a passel of relations. He would hunger for time with his only known parent for much of his life, a core element of the novel.

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John Irving – image from Outside Magazine

Readers of John Irving will recognize much that is familiar, from his prior work and his life. The novel is set in Exeter, New Hampshire, Irving’s home town; includes a benign stepparent teaching at Phillips Exeter (as his actual stepfather did); includes the narrator as a student there. Yep, Irving attended. There is wrestling, of course. Bears are limited to a kind of snowshoe shaped like their paws. A hotel figures large. There is an absent biological father, (Irving’s father was in the US Army Air Force. He never met him.); a mother with too many secrets; there is also reference made to an inappropriate relationship between an adult woman and an underage boy. (something Irving himself experienced); considerable attention is directed to feeling like, to being, an outsider.

”That’s just who you are, Adam,” my older cousin said. “There’s a foreignness inside you—beginning with where you come from. The foreignness is in you—that’s just who you are. You and me and Ray—we’re outliers.”

In fact, Irving turns the tables here, as Adam, as the only straight among the main characters, is the outsider in his own family, always the last to get things, he is nonetheless loved and supported by his sexually diverse relations.

His mother’s lifelong lover, Molly, effectively his stepmother, tells Adam, “There’s more than one way to love people, Kid.” It serves as a core message for the book and for Irving’s oeuvre. One of the main characters is transgender. He first wrote a sympathetic trans character in The World According to Garp, in 1978. So, when his son, born many years after the book was published, came out to his parents as trans, she knew her father would be completely supportive.

The politics of divergent sexuality through time manifests in diverse venues. Raucous comedic material performed at a comedy club in one era is considered too much for a later sensibility, a new puritanism of correctness. Safety for being different is a concern. Adam is very worried when his stepfather is out in their town dressed as a woman, even trails him sometimes in case a backup is needed. Reagan’s unwillingness to address AIDS until six years into his presidency is noted. Acceptance increases over time, but increased acceptance sparks increased resistance. A performer of material deemed unacceptable to some becomes a target for violence in a more disturbed climate.

In addition to the overarching theme of looking at sexual politics, sexuality is shown as far less important than the connection between people. Things that may seem sexual actually have a lot less to do with sex than connection. For instance, Adam and his mother often sleep together, in the slumbering, not biblical sense, well past the age where that is generally deemed ok. There is another relationship in which a straight man and a gay woman share a bed, sans fooling around.

There is hilarity aplenty, not least with Adam’s young sequence of damaged or damaging lovers. Lots of cringy LOL material there. I counted a dozen “LOLs” in my notes, some for entire chapters.

And then there are ghosts. Irving calls this a ghost story. I refer you to a piece on his site that addresses this directly.

Ghosts don’t just warn us about the future; they remind us of what we’ve forgotten about the past. All this is to say, I have a history of being interested in ghosts. And here come the ghosts again. In my new novel…the ghosts are more prominent than before; the ghosts, or hints of ghosts, begin and end the novel.

We all have ghosts we live with, but the ones here are visible, well, to some, anyway. They hang out in large numbers at a hotel in Aspen, but also turn up at home. The spectres are historical and familial, with some able to interact with the physical world (sometimes with LOL results) sometimes condemned to remain non-impactful. They do indeed, as noted above, remind us of the past, sometimes darkly so, but some offer direction and comfort. And Irving uses his behemoth of a novel to keep generating new ones. They pass over in a wide range of ways; lightning, murder on a stage, sudden avalanche, cancer, suicide, murder in a hotel, falling from a chairlift, leaping from a chairlift, death in war, et al. Falkner famously said “The past is never dead. It’s not even the past.” I guess it could be said for many characters in The Last Chairlift that even the dead are never entirely dead.

Adam’s profession offers ample opportunity for Irving (winner of a National Book Award AND a screenwriting Oscar) to present a wealth of material about writing, both for the screen and for print.

“My life could be a movie,” you hear people say, but what do they mean? Don’t they mean their lives are too incredible to be real—too unbelievably good or bad? “My life could be a movie” means you think movies are both less than realistic and more than you can expect from real life. “My life could be a movie” means you think your life has been special enough to get made as a movie; it means you think your life has been spectacularly blessed or cursed.
But my life is a movie, and not for the usual self-congratulatory or self-pitying reasons. My life is a movie because I’m a screenwriter. I’m first and foremost a novelist, but even when I write a novel, I’m a visualizer—I’m seeing the story unfold as if it were already on film.

Imagining the stories you want to write, and waiting to write them, is part of the writing process—like thinking about the characters you want to create, but not creating them. Yet when I did this, when I was just a kid at Exeter—when I thought about writing all the time, but I never finished anything I was writing—this amounted to little more than daydreaming.

you don’t see with hindsight in a first draft. You have to finish the first draft to see what you’ve missed.

Fiction writers like what we call truthful exaggeration. When we write about something that really happened—or it almost happened, could have happened—we just enhance what happened. Essentially, the story remains real, but we make it better than it truly was, or we make it more awful—­depending on our inclination.

There are many more—it is a very long book—but this last one in particular speaks very directly to Irving’s process. As noted up top, he returns to familiar themes and situations. In interviews he says that he begins with the same life experiences, but then changes where they go, how they morph, as if his creative process was to take the stem cells of his experiences and direct them to grow into a wide range of possible pieces. Same source, different outcomes.

It is not just the characters and situation that have morphed, it is the form as well. As Adam is a screenwriter as well as a novelist, and as this story is Adam’s, it is fitting that how he perceives the world makes its way into how he presents his story. There are long chapters that are written in screenplay format, complete with fade-ins, fade-outs, off-screen narration, closeups, wide-shots, the whole toolkit. It is an interesting tactic. I found it off-putting, but it does allow for a different approach to the material.

He does not just talk about writing per se, but incorporates into the novel considerable attention to his favorite book of all time, Moby Dick. (he has the last line of Moby Dick tattooed on his left forearm) This book opens with My mother named me Adam…, which resonates with Call me Ishmael and no less with …I am born from David Copperfield, Dickens being a particular Irving favorite. He sees himself as more of a 19th century novelist than a 21st century one.

…because those novels have always represented the model of the form for me. I loathed Hemingway. I thought Faulkner was excessive. Fitzgerald was ok, but lazy at times. I was enamored of the kind of novel all of my classmates at school despised.

References to Melville’s masterpiece (sometimes hilariously), Dickens, Ibsen, and plenty of others abound.

It is pretty clear that John Irving has had an interesting life. Eighty years old at the time of publication, he does not see The Last Chairlift as his last hurrah. In fact, he signed a three-book deal with Simon and Schuster, of which this was merely the first. He promises, though, that the next two will be a lot shorter.

Until then, this one will certainly suffice. Irving has lost none of his sense of humor. This book was more than occasionally laugh-out-loud funny. He has lost none of his feel for writing relatable humans. While some of the supporting cast are painted in broad strokes, to illustrate this or that sociopolitical issue of a given time, the main ones, and even hordes of second-tier characters are drawn with fine lines, and deep sensitivity. He has lost none of his vision, seeing clearly the currents of the eras considered, and how those have impacted social and political possibility for rounded humans who do not fit the square holes of a boilerplate majority. For all that Irving writes about people who are different, he makes it eminently clear that in matters that count we all share the same needs, to be loved, seen, and respected for who we are. Here’s hoping it will not be another seven years until we get to enjoy another of John Irving’s marvelous works.

…the dead don’t entirely go away—not if you see them on the subway, or in your heart.

Review posted – February 17, 2023

Publication date – October 18, 2022

I received an ARE of The Last Chairlift from Simon & Schuster in return for a fair review. Thanks, folks, and thanks to NetGalley for facilitating.

This review has been cross-posted on GoodReads. Stop by and say Hi!

=======================================EXTRA STUFF

Irving’s personal and FB pages

Interviews
—–CBS Sunday Morning – John Irving: A Writer’s Life with Rita Braver – a delight – Sees himself as a 19th century writer
—–Late Night with Seth Meyers – John Irving Doesn’t Write a Book Until He Knows How It’s Going to End
—–Freethought Matters – Freethought Matters: John Irving
– video – 28:08 – with Ann Laurie Gaylor and Dan Barker – Interview begins at 2:57 – focus on chairlift begins at about 18:00
—–NPR Podcasts – Book of the Day – ‘The Last Chairlift’ is John Irving’s latest novel on sexual politics with Scott Simon – Audio – 10:26
—–Hazlift – ‘Hope is an Elusive Quality’: An Interview with John Irving by Haley Cunningham
—–Toronto Star – Hugging us back in the dark: John Irving on making us care about his characters, sexual politics, and the ghosts in his new book ‘The Last Chairlift’ by Deborah Dundas

Items of Interest from the author
—–Here Come the Ghosts Again on ghosts in his novels
—–CBS News – excerpt
—–Lithub – excerpt

My review of another book by Irving
—–In One Person

Items of Interest
—– Moby Dick – Full text – with annotations
—–David Copperfield – Full text – with footnote annotations

Items of Interest from the author
—– Here Come the Ghosts Againon ghosts in his novels

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Filed under Feminism, Fiction, Historical Fiction, Literary Fiction, Reviews

A Thousand Steps by T. Jefferson Parker

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1968 was certainly an interesting time. Laguna Beach was an interesting place, an artist colony and tourist destination of about 13,000 residents, and, these days anyway, about six million visitors a year for a current local population of a bit over 20,000. So, even with a temporal discount it had to have been a lot back then too. T. Jefferson Parker lived there for a stretch. It inspired his first, very successful, novel, Laguna Heat, so he knows the territory into which he places his young hero.

Sixteen-year-old Matt Anthony is a hard-working, pretty decent kid. Holds down a paper route for money, building muscle and character on his Schwinn Heavy-Duti bike. Single mom, Julie, holds down a crappy job at a Jolly Roger restaurant. (Might be better named Davey Jones’ Locker?) His older brother, Kyle, is a short-timer in ‘Nam, terrified that something will happen to him in his remaining weeks. Their father, Bruce, a former cop, has been mostly out of the picture for years, but maintains occasional contact. Mom has issues with substances, which are dramatically available in southern Orange County, and her issues are growing more alarming. Matt’s body is going through some changes, which is always a joyous experience. And then his sister, Jasmine, a recent High School graduate, gorgeous, straight-A student, in-crowd, rebellious toward the usual authorities, goes poof! Stayed out overnight (not alarming in itself) but has remained MIA and the local fuzz are uninterested.

I was fourteen-years old in 1968 so I experienced the strange, beguiling world of Laguna Beach as a very impressionable, wide-eyed, wonder-struck boy. When it came time to create a hero/protagonist for A Thousand Steps, I just aged myself—that fourteen-year old boy—into a sixteen-year old on the cusp of getting his driver’s license, and let him take off in his mother’s hippie van! – from the Mark Gottlieb interview

Bill Furlong personifies that disinterest, a large officer, with an interest in Julie for things other than possession of illegal substances. Brigit Darnell is the good cop, young, a mom, willing to listen to Matt. It may or may not matter. He knows his sister. Does not accept that she had simply run off. And one more piece. Bonnie Stratmeyer, 18, missing two months, posters proclaiming the fact up all around, has just been found at the bottom of the stairs at the Thousand Steps Beach. (Last time Parker actually went up, or down, or both, he counted 224, but the number changes with each attempt. It’s 219 in the book.) Bonnie had not taken the usual route down. Thus Matt’s panic about Jazz.

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T. Jefferson Parker – image from Laguna Beach Independent – photo by Rita Parker

The thousand steps of the title is a notable waterfront location, but it might also be what Matt sets himself to take on, in the absence of official interest. The plot is Matt continuing to search for his missing sister, continuing to turn up clues, continuing to pester the cops to do their job, while trying to cope with chaos at home, and while coming of age, physically, socially, and emotionally. Although it may be less of a journey for Matt than other teens. He is a pretty grounded kid. And then there is the local color. A holding pen of new agers, con-men, regular crooks, a biker gang, drug dealers, drug abusers, and feckless teens. There are enough shady goings on here to blot out the California sun.

Mystic Arts World is a bookstore/head-shop/local institution that offers classes on meditation, among other things. Johnny Grail, the owner, is a bit of a local legend, a slippery sort, well able to keep a step or two ahead of the police, (who are desperate to catch him holding or doing anything illegal) to the delight of area residents. The whole New Age thing was not particularly popular with the constabulary. Go figure. But despite their clear prejudice, they actually may have something. Johnny is about as clean as a public crash pad.

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Mystic Arts World (1967-1970), a head shop in Laguna Beach, was ground zero for psychedelic culture in southern California during the late 1960s and early 1970s. It was there that a loosely organized group of artists interested in alternative culture, mystical experience and the transformation of society, “The Mystic Artists”, congregated and exhibited their art. Their artistic expression ranged from Beat assemblage to figuration to psychedelic art. – image and text from The Brotherhood of Eternal Love site

Local color extends to the presence of Timothy Leary, offering lectures at the MAW, and a Swami who has attracted a bit of a following. He offers increasing levels of instruction to his followers. Some reside at his compound, a former seminary. Matt and his brother used to play there when they were kids and it was unused.

The town hosts an annual tableaux vivants, i.e. classic paintings brought to life with people dressed up as characters in the works, and sets made to bring the paintings to life. A few characters in the novel are in it. Matt likes this. He is a budding artist and draws a passel of scenes from his experiences to help police in their frail attempts to look for his sister, and address other crimes. He is particularly fond of the work of Edward Hopper.

Working class life contrasts with the lifestyles of the rich, corrupt, and horny. We get a peek at some excusive locations hosting some very dodgy goings on. Matt fishes less for recreation than for a supply of protein, which mom cannot always provide. They live in a clapboard rental, for which Mom struggles to make rent, Matt sleeping in the garage. But we see great wealth on display as well. There is a part of town called Dodge City, for its casual relationship with the law, general run-down-ness and general hostility toward people toting badges. Get out of Dodge? Sure, ASAP. But up-slope and down-slope have plenty of criminal intent in common.

So what happened to Jazz? Is she still alive? As the days pass the odds seem worse and worse. Is Matt’s mom serious about stopping her drug use? He gathers help where he can, and pedals on, but we wonder if he might be wasting his time. Why does Mom want to move to Dodge City? Will his father ever show up to help? He keeps promising. And even if he does, would he be more hindrance than help? Is the Swami as nice and wise as he seems? Girls are becoming more a part of his life, and maybe even some activities that often accompany such associations. Will Matt’s permanent crush on Laurel ever go anywhere?

I am roughly the same age as Matt, so can relate to being a teen in that era. It never hurts to add that into the reading enjoyment mix. On the other hand, my east coast experience was quite different from his Cali life, including the degree of drug exposure. My older brother was in the army too, but not in Viet Nam. My father was around. My mom’s drugs of choice were Tareytons and tea. But still, we all go through adolescence, so there is the coming-of-age element to relate to. Sounds like Matt skipped the parts where your voice goes to hell, your face resembles a moonscape, and embarrassing body parts pop up for no discernible reason, for all to see. Whatever. It is impossible not to love Matt. There is one gripe I have about him, though. For someone who was so smart and intrepid about tracking down his sister, he is startlingly blind about some items, which I will not spoil here, that were jumping up and down and screaming from the pages. Yeah, he is just an unworldly teen, so could easily miss some things, but he seems pretty sharp about other stuff, so it rankled.

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Matt’s bike – image from TJP’s Twitter cache

Parker has been at this for a while. Steps is his 27th book. His first, Laguna Heat, was an instant success, and was brought to the screen by HBO. His work includes multiple series, and has earned him THREE EDGAR AWARDS! So, no slouch. He started his writing career as a cub reporter. In the Internet Writing Journal interview Parker was asked how his journalism background informed his writing.

The best thing about journalism is that it teaches a young person how the world works. It’s not the writing itself, because that is fairly straightforward and desirably formulaic. It’s the exposure that’s valuable. When I was 23 I was covering cultural events, movies, books, city hall, school board, fires, police — everything but sports and business. It was a crash course on civics, human nature, bureaucracy. It was also a crash course on how the press and the government and business all interact. Those relationships are at the core of what we are as a republic.

He knew he was not a journalistic long-timer, but being a reporter did hone his skills, and also allowed him a venues in which he could collect plenty of details to include in his fictional writing. His craft has grown as well. Keep an ear out for the soundscape Parker has incorporated. It enriches the reading experience.

I read this one at bedtime, 20-30 pps a night, sometimes more, sometimes less, depending. Every day I was reading this book I was eager, very eager to tuck my lower half under the covers, (also good for hiding the cloven hoofs) crank up the laptop for my notetaking, switch on the lights to make reading my hardcopy ARE possible, and reveled. You all know that feeling when you are truly enjoying a book, and look forward to getting back to it every day. Well, presuming that you do not just scarf down the entire thing in one ginormous gulp. I prefer to spread out that joy. So, a couple weeks, and it delivered every night.

Bottom line is that I totally enjoyed this book. Appreciated the portrait of a time and place well known to the author, loved the lead character, and had fun trying to figure out who had committed (was committing?) which crimes, how, and why. A few of those will quickly succumb to your investigative instincts, but the rest will keep you guessing. Mystery, suspense, thriller, coming-of-age? Use whatever adjective suits or mix and match. Doesn’t matter. Whatever you call it, A Thousand Steps will remain a pretty good read. You will not need any LSD or opiated anything to get off on or get into this book. Go ahead. Be a tourist in Laguna Beach for a bit. It’s a trip you won’t want to miss.

Review posted – January 7, 2022

Publication date – January 11, 2022

This review has been cross-posted on Goodreads. Stop by and say Hi!

I received an ARE of A Thousand Steps from Macmillan’s Reading Insiders Club program in return for a couple of hits of that sweet product. Righteous, man.

=======================================EXTRA STUFF

Links to the Parker’s personal, FB, GR, and Twitter pages

What does the T. stand for?
Not a thing. No, really. Nada. Zip. Nothing. Jeff’s mom always explained it by saying she thought the T. would look good on the President’s door.
– from the Bookbrowse interview

Interviews
—–Mark Gottlieb Talks Books – Three-Time Edgar Award-winner and New York Times Bestselling Author T. Jefferson Parker
—–2007 – Bookpage – Only in California by Jay MacDonald
—–The VJ Books Podcast – T. Jefferson Parker – A Thousand Steps by Roger Nichols
—–2018- Bookbrowse – An interview with T Jefferson Parker
—–The Internet Writing Journal – A Conversation With T. Jefferson Parker by Claire E. White
—–2002 – Orange County Register – THE VIEW FROM ELSEWHERE by Amy Wilson

Songs/Music
—–The Rollingstones – Satisfaction
—–Cream – Tales of Great Ulysses
—–Cream – Sunshine of Your Love
—–Jimi Hendrix – Foxy Lady – Hendrix performs in front of an audience of the sitting dead in Miami
—–The Byrds – Mr. Tambourine Man

Items of Interest
—–The Brotherhood of Eternal Love – their site
—–Brotherhood of Eternal Love – Laguna Beach – Wet Side Story – a bit of Laguna Beach history
—–All That’s Interesting (ATI) – An interesting article about the BEL in the 1960s
—–Wiki on Timothy Leary
—–Wiki on the Pageant of the Masters, an annual event held in Laguna Beach, featuring tableaux vivants, i.e. classic paintings brought to life with people dressed up as characters in the works, and sets made to bring the paintings to life. A few characters in the novel are in it. Here is a nifty video promoting the event today.

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Filed under Fiction, Historical Fiction, Mystery, Suspense, Thriller, Thriller