The Last Chairlift by John Irving
My rating: 4 of 5 stars
The latest (and quite possibly last) novel of John Irving is a fine work of literary fiction. It’s not “A Prayer for Owen Meany” good, but it’s alright. Whereas “Owen Meany” was masterfully plotted with continuous points of tension and well-timed reveals, Irving’s new book meanders through the latter half of the twentieth century, presenting fascinating characters and the occasional powerful and poignant event.
In varied outlets, I’ve seen this referred to as a book about skiing and a book about ghosts. It’s neither of those things, though they both figure in the book. I would say it’s mostly about sexual identity and sexual politics in America. The story follows the life of Adam Brewster and his unconventional extended family of a lesbian mother who marries Adam’s father figure (Elliot Barlow, a man at the time who subsequently transitions to female) and has a simultaneous long-term committed relationship with another woman. Other major characters include his lesbian cousin and her committed partner, the partner, Em, being Adam’s lifelong crush.) At some point in reading, it occurred to me that this group was thick as thieves and there was really no ingroup dissent or conflict among them, and I wondered why that worked [instead of being painfully boring,] and I think it’s because they’re faced with so much outgroup [or edge of group, e.g. Adam’s aunts and – later – wife / ex-wife] pressure that it forces them to be closer in all ways.
Earlier I said that the book meanders through the second half of the twentieth century, but it actually continues through almost to the present-day. The biggest criticism I would offer is that the last twenty-ish years are rushed through and the author frequently seems to forget that there are characters that should have interesting life events. Instead, the book engages in long strings of “as-you-know-Bob” exposition on American politics, and when it’s not ranting about politics, the end reads a bit like a family Christmas letter. After what is the novel’s undisputed most moving moment, an event masterfully imagined and articulated, it’s kind of a slog to the end. [Which is, unfortunately, the last twenty percent of the book or so (at least it feels that way.)] Putting it another way, Elliot Barlow (aka. “the snowshoer” / “the pretty English teacher” / “the little wrestling coach”) is arguably the most likeable and compelling character in the book, and very little of interest occurs after she is out of the picture.
I enjoyed reading this book, but – as I say – it can be a slog compared to many of Irving’s earlier works. It’s worth noting that this book features multiple writer characters and an editor character, and still would have benefited from a heavy-handed editor. It does have a couple chapters that read as screenplays, and they are intriguing and make for a nice pace change. If you’re an Irving fan, you need to read this book. If you’re not yet familiar with his work, start elsewhere.
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