Review: John Irving writes long tale ‘The Last Chairlift’

“The Last Chairlift” by John Irving (Simon & Schuster)

After 54 years and 15 novels, John Irving’s finally done it. He’s written a book longer than most editions of “Moby-Dick.” And by the time you’re done reading it, you’ll chuckle every time you see the hyphen in Melville’s title.

It’s difficult to do justice to this book in a short review. Every Irving fan will read it and even readers trying Irving for the first time will find it an accessible introduction to the New England-born novelist whose work has always been stuffed with serious themes like religion, sex and politics, tempered by a fair dose of satire and absurdity, delivered by narrators in an endearing, matter-of-fact prose.

At its heart “The Last Chairlift” is a love story, telling almost the entire life story of its narrator, Adam Brewster, himself a writer growing up in Exeter, New Hampshire, who wrestles, becomes a bestselling novelist, wins an Oscar and earns Canadian citizenship, not unlike Mr. Irving himself. But as narrator Adam admits: “Real life is so sloppy — it’s full of coincidences. Things just happen, random things that have no connection to one another. In good fiction, isn’t everything connected to everything else?” In “The Last Chairlift,” Irving tries to do both — tell a fictional story that is chock full of random events, but make it feel like nothing is random at all in hindsight, as Adam relates it all to us.

At the beginning of the book, Adam doesn’t know who his biological father is. His mother falls in love with an English teacher at Exeter Academy, whom Adam admires for his diminutive stature and his distaste for downhill skiing. Henceforth the man, whose full name is Elliot Barlow, is referred to mostly as “the snowshoer.” (Adam’s mom, called Little Ray, is also very small. She’s a ski instructor, always doing lunges and wall sits around the house and decamping for the winter months to live in Manchester, New Hampshire, closer to the ski mountain that pays the bills.)

Without spoiling too much, it turns out that Ray isn’t really into men anymore, if she ever was, and while “the snowshoer” is a constant companion for the rest of her days and a father figure to Adam, it’s a ski patroller named Molly who captures Little Ray’s heart.

True to form for an Irving novel, sex is a frequent topic of discussion and driver of the plot. There’s an unusual frankness among Adam’s extended family about his formative sexual experiences, which are recounted in great detail and recalled at various stages of his life. There’s also an orgasm that even “the white whale wouldn’t have survived” overheard by guests at Little Ray’s wedding to the snowshoer, and while the narrative tracks Adam’s life, chronologically, it lingers during sexually charged political moments in history — from Roe v. Wade to President Reagan ignoring the AIDS crisis to the pedophile scandal in the Catholic Church.

Oh, and don’t forget the ghosts! The novel begins and ends with a reference to them and they play all sorts of roles in between. A real-life establishment in Aspen, Colorado, called The Hotel Jerome is haunted by various important figures in Adam’s life, many of which he features in a pair of screenplays he writes that are included in the novel, but which are based on his real life. Screenplay line spacing helps the 889 pages turn faster. It’s not that you want “The Last Chairlift” to end, exactly, but you do want to see where all the characters end up off after that final ride up the mountain.

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