Thursday, January 19, 2023

The Last Chairlift, by John Irving: A Test of Endurance

Last week, after nearly three months of reading John Irving's mammoth 900-page novel The Last Chairlift a few pages a day, I texted a friend: "I have 75 pages to go, and it feels like Mile 23 of a marathon. I'm going to make it, but it hurts!"

That's probably overly dramatic. There's plenty to like here. It's one of those novels you'll read five pages and wonder why you're reading this or ever liked John Irving or like reading at all, and then he'll drop some wisdom or a plot twist or a perfect sentence and you realize why you love all those things. 

The Last Chairlift covers 80 years in the life of one Adam Brewster, a New England writer who grows up with a lesbian mother, a trans stepfather, and is surrounded by a cast of characters that let's just say wouldn't exactly be welcomed at a Waffle House in a red state. They're a fascinating group, to say the least. 

In an interview with Seth Meyers not long after the book was published, Irving explained why it was important to make Adam, the straight, white male character, the outsider in this group of characters. "It was certainly my intention to make him the odd guy out, to make him the 'queer' member of the family -- queer in the sense of strange and not up to speed." I loved that! Good fiction turns norms on their head. 

As with many of Irving's novels, he repeats a single phrase over and over throughout a novel to really drive home a theme. Here, Adam, who is telling this story in the first-person, tells us often the best advice he ever received, and the best lesson he ever learned: "There's more than one way to love people." 

In total, the novel is a career retrospective for Irving, who has said this will be his last "long" novel. There's wrestling and uncomfortable situations with young men and much older women and progressive politics and lots of writers and yes, ghosts.

When I finished the book, I texted my friend again "FINISHED!" She asked if it was worth it, and I had to think about that a minute. Yes, it's definitely always worth it to finish a novel, I responded. This one tested me for sure. But ultimately, yes, it was worth it. It did hurt at times, but also like a marathon, I knew I was signing up for pain when I started this, and finishing it did feel like an accomplishment!

I've read nearly every word Irving has written, and I'd put this one in the bottom of the middle-third of his work. It's definitely better than Avenue of Mysteries and Until I Find You, but nowhere near Garp or Owen Meany. 


  1. I'm nearly at the half way mark and Oh My! is it tough going. Like you I've read just about everything Irving has written,some of it great, some of it good and some of it just OK. However not one of those did I struggle with like I am with this. If he has an editor they should have been strong enough to say "It's too repetitive, too long-winded, too flabby and far to long". I'll persevere but it's testing my resolve mightily.

    1. I have been a absolute lover of most all of Irving’s books but confess to skipping pages. The characters and subject matter included ended up being bogged down . Far too long of a book. Did he just want to say he’d written a novel of that length? Enough with the ghosts .