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.
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!
Irving’s personal and FB pages
—–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