Reviewed by Ian Lipke
When Adam Brewster, the protagonist of John Irving’s new novel, The Last Chairlift finds himself enmeshed in an incestuous affair with his unmarried mother, all the signs flash “Beware! This book may not be worth the time needed to read it.” The fleshpots are further indicated by the naming of the character, Adam — named for the Bible’s first man, narrating in the first person.
There is the expected focus on keeping a secret, which in the present context affirms the suggestion of smut, and a quick excursion through the pages confirms this. It surprises me that the book was published at all. Its way forward is by a series of jerks, if it’s possible to jerk while meandering. The plot, such as it is, digresses into side issues that bear little relationship with the forward thrust of the argument.
There are many references to other books. Allusions to Moby-Dick and Bartleby the Scrivener and Great Expectations; to John Updike, Kurt Vonnegut and Graham Greene; and, more surprisingly, to Ludwig Bemelmans’s Madeline. There is also a reference to various types of film noir. There is little doubt that this author has produced other books.
Sections of the book are delivered in script form suggesting the movies, particularly unmade ones. Adam is haunted by a series of ghosts who cling to darkness as a coat or cloak. One of them may be Adam’s father but, one would never know. It’s a matter of proposing who you wish. The book is so long that reading it becomes surviving an avalanche of words, There is little suggestion that one might enjoy the experience.
Irving kills off characters in shocking and unlikely ways. Blood flows with rapidity. Relatives are struck by lightning; trapped under a derailed train; gunned down in a comedy club called the Gallows Lounge; run off the road in a truck while listening to a song called “No Lucky Star,” sung by a performer from the Gallows, also doomed, named Damaged Don.
The Brewsters are a peculiar bunch. Adam’s girlfriends will be given nicknames like “The One With the Limp” and “The Tall One With Her Arm in the Cast.” They will bleed from fibroids, tumble downstairs headfirst and lose bowel control in his bed. Genitals are cringingly squashed and assessed. The only thing we hear out of Em’s mouth in the first part of the book is an orgasm so loud and sustained it causes a waitress to drop her tray, spill a water pitcher and fall to her knees. Gross!
Irving has been a long-time champion of queerness in his novels, even if “queer” in this one is used only in the old, derogatory, unclaimed sense. Elliot (“the snowshoer”) will eventually transition genders, a change that provokes Adam’s affection and protectiveness.
Preachy and bawdy in the main, The Last Chairlift has occasional patches of pleasurable writing. But for me reading this book is an effort in suffocation.
by John Irving
$49.99; 1013 pp