At 889 pages, John Irving’s new novel, “The Last Chairlift,” is an imposing brick of paper. This is, in every way, Irving cubed.
That sense of deja vu stems from Irving’s devotion to a particular set of themes and motifs: hotels, wrestling, absent fathers, sexual gymnastics, etc. But the familiarity of those elements also speaks to his mountainous presence in contemporary literature since the late 1960s. Over a dozen years, starting in 1978, Irving published four remarkable novels in a row: “The World According to Garp,” “The Hotel New Hampshire,” “The Cider House Rules” and “A Prayer for Owen Meany.” Popular and critically acclaimed movie adaptations have sewn Irving’s stories even more broadly into American culture.
Now, at the age of 80, Irving has published his 15th novel, another persistently familiar, partially autobiographical epic about a man enduring a series of erotic and violent episodes. Fans of the author’s work may appreciate the invitation to survey this vast rearrangement of his cherished tropes. Who, after all, isn’t cheered to see the old Christmas decorations brought down from the attic one more time? But everyone is likely to sympathize with the narrator of “The Last Chairlift,” who confesses on Page 856, “It seemed to me I was reading forever.”
Like the Bible, this sprawling book begins with the mysterious creation of Adam. His mother, a lesbian nicknamed Little Ray, refuses to identify Adam’s dad. We’re told only that her coupling — possibly with an actor or maybe a child — was a singular event. Ray’s censorious sisters are scandalized; her father, a retired teacher at Exeter Academy, sobs and then refuses to speak ever again. “My mother wanted nothing to do with men,” Adam says, “only me.”
Her devotion is complicated, as you might expect in a New England family whose issues “are all about sex.” An expert ski instructor, Ray spends six months of the year away on the slopes, which Adam resents. But she makes it up to him when she comes back home. Ray and Adam “cuddle together” in a twin bed long past the age when that might be considered appropriate. On one particularly memorable night, Ray straddles her son’s hips and holds his shoulders down hard. “When you’re thirteen,” Adam says, “and your mother gives you your first good kiss, you better hope someone matches it or eclipses it — soon.”
Actually, you’d better hope someone matches you with a therapist — soon.
Instead, Ray and Adam remain entangled with each other’s lives in a way that feels alternately sweet and cringe-inducing. Over the years, Ray counsels her son through a string of comic disasters with “girlfriends who were predisposed to tragedy.” There’s “The Strong One on Crutches,” “The Tall One with Her Arm in a Cast” and, not to be outdone, “The Bleeder,” who goes on and on about her fibroids while making love, doing the laundry, eating breakfast.
You wouldn’t know it from Adam’s congenial demeanor, but having sex with him is risky business. Young women get stuck in showers, they fall down stairs, they wreak havoc. Nothing fazes Adam’s mother, though. She patiently advises caution and mends injuries like some kind of sexual coach. When a young woman named Maud gets out of hand while climaxing, Adam says, “It was my mom who unwrapped Maud’s legs from around me, and pulled me off her.” Where’s a bear when you need one?
These erotic adventures subject poor Adam’s penis to much distress and discussion. It should come as no surprise that Herman Melville’s “Moby-Dick” is a literary touchstone throughout “The Last Chairlift,” and eighth-grade boys the world over would be impressed by the number of prurient jokes that Irving derives from Melville’s title.
For his part, Adam has a profound effect on his mother’s romantic life, too. He sets her up with Elliot Barlow, an unusually tiny man who is his favorite teacher at Exeter Academy. That Elliot has no sexual interest in women only helps make him the perfect husband for Adam’s gay mom. “Two beards are better than one,” a friend says. And their marriage ceremony is one of the most brilliantly choreographed calamities that Irving has ever written — complete with a deadly act of God, an earth-shattering orgasm and an old man wearing only a diaper who runs around on all fours, biting guests’ ankles. (It must also be noted that Jonathan Franzen is no longer the leading user of human poo in a literary novel. In “The Last Chairlift,” even the ghosts lose control of their bowels. You have been warned.)
Ostensibly, this is the story of a writer’s development, but, like so many of Irving’s novels, its real impulse is a reconception of family. Is there another major straight male author who has been such a consistent and daring explorer of the great spectrum of human desire? Ray may sound like an Oedipal nightmare, but she makes her son feel safe and loved. Even as Mr. Barlow transitions to become a woman, Adam knows Elliot is the best dad a guy could have. And Adam’s dearest friends are a cousin and her female lover, who communicates only through pantomime. Irving pushes hard on the iconoclastic nature of these characters only to emphasize their ordinariness as devoted family members. The night Adam’s mother gets married, her real partner tells him, “There’s more than one way to love people.”
That’s a beautiful theme, and there’s a wonderful novel about that theme trapped in this great ordeal of printed matter. Early in the story, Adam says: “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.”
It would be more accurate to say that at his best he’s a visualizer. The most arresting sections of “The Last Chairlift” are powerfully cinematic scenes — either comic or violent. Irving’s portrayal of a shooting in a crowded venue, for instance, is rendered with such visual acuity and kinetic energy that I’d swear I saw it rather than read it. And 200 pages of this novel are presented as the script for a movie about Adam returning to the hotel where he was conceived.
In such sections — and whenever “The Last Chairlift” is actively expanding the boundaries of what a family can be — the story feels vital and exciting. But when Adam says, “Yes, I know — I’m leaving too much out,” the irony combined with my shredded patience made me tear up a little bit.
Despite their autobiographical elements, the sections about Adam’s success as an author and his move to Canada feel perfunctory and devoid of life. And far too many chapters sound self-indulgent and redundant. That problem becomes acute in long, artless passages of editorializing — about, say, Ronald Reagan or the Catholic Church — that have all the considered insight of barbershop chatter.
“How many times do I have to say it?” Adam asks. “Unrevised, real life is just a mess.”
Ron Charles reviews books and writes the Book Club newsletter for The Washington Post.
The Last Chairlift
By John Irving
Simon & Schuster. 889 pp. $38
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