John Irving is one of America’s most prolific late 20th and early 21st century authors. His latest novel, “The Last Chairlift,” like many of his previous 14, is set in New England, and contains multiple parallels to Irving’s life.
Like narrator and protagonist Adam Brewster, Irving was the stepson of a faculty member of Philips Exeter Academy in New Hampshire. Like Brewster, Irving was both a wrestler and later an assistant wrestling coach at the academy. Like Brewster, Irving was unaware of details of his father’s life until his middle years. And like Irving, Brewster becomes a successful novelist and screenwriter.
“The Last Chairlift” tells, in linear fashion, the life story of Adam Brewster. From his birth to a ski instructor in Aspen, through his years as a wrestler at the high school and collegiate levels, Brewster reminds us of what a small person he is, and how his small size, particularly his hands, reflect his maternal heritage and what a central figure his mother is in his life. From his earliest years, Brewster’s mother allows him to discover, bit by bit, pieces of his family’s history, much of which involves unconventional relationships.
Irving develops multiple characters in ways that make it easy to keep track of them as they move in and out of Brewster’s world. After the deaths of many of his characters, Irving brings them back as ghosts who continue to impact Brewster’s life. The narrative often feels repetitious, but Irving inserts enough twists and turns to keep the reader’s attention.
Much of the book describes skiing and its importance to much of Brewster’s family and friends. The skiing motif allows Irving to use the imagery of the chairlift as a means of transportation, not to the beginning of the mountain top ski trails, but to a higher plane of existence.
Those who have read Irving’s previous work will find a lot to enjoy in this great lumbering mammoth (912 pages) of a novel. Those who have less experience with the author may find one of his earlier novels, such as “The World According to Garp,” a more accessible introduction to his writing.