It’s been seven years since the publication of John Irving’s last novel (Avenue of Mysteries), so for fans who’ve followed him over the course of a career spanning more than half a century, The Last Chairlift will feel like settling into a well-worn pair of slippers. They’ll have plenty of time to savor that comfortable sensation in this 900-page family story that’s packed with emotion, insight and compassion for our flawed humanity.
“My life could be a movie,” writes Adam Brewster, the first-person narrator of the novel, and there’s definitely a cinematic quality to the story. (The novel includes two of Adam’s full-length screenplays, and a character from the film business plays a central role.) Like Irving, Adam was born in 1942, raised in the town of Exeter, New Hampshire, and is a novelist with a “disaster-prone imagination” who writes several bestselling books after graduating from the Iowa Writers’ Workshop. These are far from the only correlations between creator and protagonist.
The Last Chairlift follows Adam from birth through late middle age, and much of the story is animated by his search for the man who fathered him in Aspen, Colorado, at the real-life Hotel Jerome. Adam is raised by his ski instructor mother, Rachel, and, as he enters his teens, a stepfather, Elliot Barlow. Elliot eventually undergoes a gender transition, and Rachel settles into a long-term relationship with Molly, whom she meets at a New Hampshire ski resort. Two other characters play major roles: Adam’s cousin Nora and her nonspeaking partner, Emily, who perform a standup routine called “Two Dykes, One Who Talks” at a New York City comedy club with the lugubrious name of the Gallows Lounge.
Along with raising questions of sexual identity and gender bias, The Last Chairlift nods prominently to Irving’s earlier novels The World According to Garp and A Prayer for Owen Meany, and features many of his familiar narrative flourishes: murders, wrestling, spectacular accidents (a lightning strike and an avalanche-caused train derailment, for starters), pointed social commentary on subjects such as the Vietnam War and the AIDS epidemic, and loads of dark humor. Irving has long acknowledged his debt to Charles Dickens, and the novel does have its Dickensian moments, but the work whose spirit hovers most prominently over this story is Herman Melville’s Moby-Dick, a favorite of several characters and a frequent reference point.
“Unrevised, real life is just mess,” Adam writes in one of his screenplays, and Irving has served up a substantial helping of that messiness in this empathetic novel. With Irving celebrating his 80th birthday earlier this year, his publisher has announced that The Last Chairlift will be his last big novel. For all the enjoyment more modest works may bring, this one is a fitting valediction to his distinguished literary career.