From a Google Image Search – CBC
It took me a while to adjust to John Irving’s bizarre characters and plotting details in The Last Chairlift, but John Irving knows how to have his way with his loyal readers. Will new readers of Irving like this book? Can an old activist discuss the wide array of modern genders without being guilty of cultural appropriation? Well, he has his tricks but perhaps only true readers, celebrated in this book, will go the course, ski the diamond runs.
John Irving is from New Hampshire. Skiing and skiers are things he probably knows quite a bit about. In The Last Chairlift his mom is a ski instructor and Adam is her one and only (child). She begat him in Aspen at the Jerome Hotel from a boy just entering puberty. She lives in a sort of dorm full of raucous and fun-loving girl ski instructors with her partner, Molly, a trail groomer, and a big old reliable girl with a sweet spirit. A number of women in Irving’s book have a big problem with penises. Then there are the characters who see ghosts and those that don’t. Adam and Little Ray (his mom) both see ghosts, especially at the Jerome Hotel but several ghosts visit Adam in the attic bedroom at his grandmother’s house where he lives while is mother is busy at various ski mountains.
Adam is from a family of small people. His father, who does not appear until late in his life is small, his mother is small, thus the nickname “Little Ray,” she marries the very small Elliot Barlow (not too small to be a good wrestling coach, just the right size for a man who should have been born a woman). Small size does not make these characters small in spirit.
Adam has a big cousin, Nora, a lesbian, and a true activist, bold, creative, and outspoken and much admired by Adam. Nora’s girlfriend, with the legendary wild and loud orgasms, is actually mute. These two have a comedy act at a NYC club that resembles The Stonewall Inn, called Two Dykes, One Who Talks. Em doesn’t talk but she becomes a master of awkward pantomime. She’s the pretty one. Adam loves all these people, but it seems he is in unrequitable love with Em (McPherson).
Moby Dick plays a big role in this novel, perhaps similar to the role the dog, Sorrow, played in Hotel New Hampshire, as a source of literary content, social commentary and “dick” humor. Repetition is one of the ways Irving gets us to immerse ourselves in his mayhem. Irving plays his usual comic tricks that never fail to provide humor that makes us shake our heads because it is so outlandish and sick. Adam’s early sexual liaisons with injured women, one on crutches with twitchy nerves, one with a cast, one who is a bleeder, might prove as obstacles to normal sexual development to a young man who did not have Little Ray and Molly and his nonchalant grandmother in his corner.
But love is all around, and it tempers all the many disasters in this long tale. It is typically Irving, over-the-top, endearing social commentary intended to change your views and make you suspend your disbelief. Who decides when a great writer is too old to write? It’s a thing between writers and readers. This may or may not be Irving’s last novel, but in this one he’s still got his writer mojo.