The Last Chairlift

  • By John Irving
  • Simon & Schuster
  • 912 pp.
  • Reviewed by Chris Rutledge
  • November 29, 2022

A disjointed, disappointing tale from an otherwise brilliant novelist.

The Last Chairlift

John Irving is an American treasure. The World According to Garp, The Cider House Rules, and A Prayer for Owen Meany are classics of modern literature. Which is why it’s such a tragedy that his latest novel, The Last Chairlift, simply does not live up to his other work.

Irving has stated that this is his final long novel. If that’s the case, he appears to be going for word count to make his swansong memorable. Topping out at over 900 pages, The Last Chairlift would be a slog even if you weren’t already familiar with many of the tropes it employs.

The narrative spans the 20th century, the American landscape, and a host of what Irving in the past would have called “sexual outlaws.” The novel centers on Adam, his mother, her husband (a beloved mentor to Adam), and his mother’s lesbian partner, as well as on Adam’s cousin and her partner (who later becomes his wife).

There’s not much to say about the book’s plot, unfortunately, because it doesn’t have one. Worse, Irving so often repeats themes from his earlier books that it borders on self-plagiarism. If you’ve read anything by him before, you’ve read this book. Certainly, authors are free to revisit subjects and frequently do, but in The Last Chairlift, Irving returns to such specific plot points from The World According to Garp that you wonder if he’s simply rewriting old material.

The list is long. Do you want to read about a mother who impregnates herself via someone who cannot consent to sex? In Garp, the future baby’s father is a comatose soldier. Here, it’s a 14-year-old boy. Would you like to meet young women who voluntarily mute themselves to protest sexual violence? In Garp, you have the Ellen Jamesians. In The Last Chairlift, you get a pantomime artist (do such performers even exist?) named Emily.

Or do you feel like encountering a transgender former athlete who becomes a beloved parental figure? Here, Garp’s retired football player Roberta Muldoon is repackaged as wrestler Elliot Barlow (who remains “Mr.” Barlow post-transition for reasons unexplained).

You can’t help but experience déjà vu as you move from page to page, yet this is far from the only weakness in the book. Throughout, things just...happen. Sometimes they are connected to prior occurrences, but often not. And once you’ve moved past one chapter, more stuff just…happens, again without any real connection to what came before. It all leads to a sense of disjointedness for the reader.

If you’re worried you won’t keep all the characters straight, don’t be. Irving obsessively states their ages and professions every few pages, if not their names. Mr. Barlow is more frequently referred to as “the snowshoer” (his hobby) and Adam’s mother’s partner as “the night groomer” (her job) than their actual monikers. I suppose this is intended to help the reader follow along as characters jump from place to place, but it comes across as a bit off.

Oh, did I mention the ghosts? Yes, there’s also a ghost story unfolding here, although its value is unclear.

For all his lack of a theme, Irving, long an advocate of sexual and political open-mindedness, works into the narrative numerous polemics largely directed at Ronald Reagan. You’d think this might constitute a theme of sorts. You’d be wrong.

To be fair, The Last Chairlift isn’t all bad. If you’re a fan of Classic John Irving, many of the novel’s quirky characters will feel like old friends. And you do come to pull for them, if only because you’ve spent so much time together. Like relatives and party guests who just won’t leave, they work their way into your heart, at least a little. And if you, like this reviewer, share Irving’s liberal politics — particularly around sexual expression — you’ll have your worldview validated.

The Last Chairlift may be Irving’s final long work, but one can hope other, shorter pieces are forthcoming. The author’s talent and legacy are too great for this to be the send-off he leaves us with.

Chris Rutledge is a husband, father, writer, nonprofit professional, and community member living in Silver Spring, MD. Besides the Independent, his work has appeared in Kirkus Reviews, American Book Review, and countless intemperate Facebook posts, which will surely get him into trouble one day.

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