Literary Saloon
Site of Review.

Trying to meet all your book preview and review needs.

the Best
the Rest
Review Index




to e-mail us:

support the site

In Association with Amazon.com

In association with Amazon.com - UK

In association with Amazon.ca - Canada

the Complete Review
the complete review - fiction

The Last Chairlift

John Irving

general information | review summaries | our review | links | about the author

To purchase The Last Chairlift

Title: The Last Chairlift
Author: John Irving
Genre: Novel
Written: 2022
Length: 889 pages
Availability: The Last Chairlift - US
The Last Chairlift - UK
The Last Chairlift - Canada
from: Bookshop.org (US)

- Return to top of the page -

Our Assessment:

B- : a heap of a novel, with just too much piled in and on

See our review for fuller assessment.

Review Summaries
Source Rating Date Reviewer
The Guardian B 19/10/2022 Edward Docx
The NY Times B- 19/10/2022 Alexandra Jacobs
The Spectator F 22/10/2022 Jenny Colgan
The Telegraph D- 18/10/2022 Claire Allfree
TLS F 18/11/2022 Nat Segnit
Wall St. Journal . 21/10/2022 Sam Sacks
The Washington Post . 12/10/2022 Ron Charles

  Review Consensus:

  Too much !

  From the Reviews:
  • "This novel is not for those without readerly stamina. (...) The best of the novel comes in Irving’s unusual scene writing, and this remains his great imaginative strength. He consistently avoids the cliches of setup and setting and deftly draws you in as a witness to the outlandish. (...) It would be overstating the case to say that Irving is merely gestural in this book, but it’s as though he brilliantly imagines scenes and characters and then omits to give the latter much interesting or plausible interiority -- like writing a screenplay and relying on a director or actors to bring the depth. (...) Irving has been compared to Dickens, but on the evidence of this novel that is far-fetched. He has little of Dickens’s sophisticated and multivalent command of register, and only a fraction of his psychological dexterity. His vocabulary lacks invention and his word selection is staunchly unremarkable. I’m afraid the book is also very poorly edited -- if at all." - Edward Docx, The Guardian

  • "(A) tough old-fashioned bildungsroman that meanders more than it moves, with its creator’s customary herks, jerks, digressions and Rabelaisian excesses. (...) (T)his sustained sojourn can feel like an unrelenting avalanche of words from which one emerges blinking and dazed -- a book to be not so much read as survived. (...) Preachy and tauntingly bawdy in patches, The Last Chairlift does have pleasurable stretches, when the air is clear and the terrain smooth. But unless you’re an Irving superfan craving a big summing-up, the novel’s muchness might simply suffocate." - Alexandra Jacobs, The New York Times

  • "The thing is, John Irving is a genius -- a comic, warm, brilliant genius. The fact that this book is terrible is simply something we must all just get over. (...) And let us not think about how, as editors get younger and titans of letters get older, it appears harder and harder to provide useful editorial feedback vis-à-vis how long books ought to be and whether or not they should include entire screenplays, even when it comes to a writer as famously warm and thoughtful as Irving. (...) There is no need even to mention its stupid title, which somehow manages to exclude the population of the world who is either unfamiliar with, or does not enjoy, skiing." - Jenny Colgan, The Spectator

  • "Somewhere amid the strangulating thickets of deadening prose there is a touching novel here that boldly rewrites the model of what an American family can be. But good luck trying to find it." - Claire Allfree, The Telegraph

  • "The problem lies in the narration’s insistent exteriority. The unmade-movie comparison is apt, but not for the reasons Irving suggests. (...) Plenty of things happen in The Last Chairlift. They just happen successively, as remarkable but isolated and essentially arbitrary events, rather than as links in a causative chain or as the structural supports of a larger aesthetic edifice. The result is damp kindling: a terminal lack of narrative momentum. (...) A weakly plotted novel can always play the literary card: it is character-driven. But The Last Chairlift falls short in that respect too. What drives it, weakly, is incident. It is incident-incidental, character-lethargic, plot-comatose." - Nat Segnit, Times Literary Supplement

  • "This is, in every way, Irving cubed. (...) Ostensibly, this is the story of a writer’s development, but, like so many of Irving’s novels, its real impulse is a reconception of family. Is there another major straight male author who has been such a consistent and daring explorer of the great spectrum of human desire ?" - Ron Charles, The Washington Post

Please note that these ratings solely represent the complete review's biased interpretation and subjective opinion of the actual reviews and do not claim to accurately reflect or represent the views of the reviewers. Similarly the illustrative quotes chosen here are merely those the complete review subjectively believes represent the tenor and judgment of the review as a whole. We acknowledge (and remind and warn you) that they may, in fact, be entirely unrepresentative of the actual reviews by any other measure.

- Return to top of the page -

The complete review's Review:

       The Last Chairlift is narrated by Adam Brewster -- a familiar Irving-type protagonist, sharing many bits of the author's own biography as, for example, he's an undersized wrestler who attended Exeter and both studied and taught at the Iowa Writers' Workshop and became a successful novelist and screenwriter.
       The novel is presented in three parts -- three acts, specifically -- with Irving's protagonist emphasizing form early on:

My life is a movie because I'm a screenwriter. I'm first and foremost a novelist, nut even when I write a novel, I'm a visualizer -- I'm seeing the story unfold as if it were on film.
       Most of The Last Chairlift is presented in familiar narrative novel form, but eventually Adam can see and recount part of his story only even more obviously like a film, with two long sections -- totaling some two hundred pages (which is still less than a quarter of the book ...) -- presented in screenplay form. As he explains about this central but late-in-life (and hence also quite late in the story) episode:
Screenplays are written in the present tense, as if what you see is happening for the first time. That's why what happened to me in Aspen is a movie; it's always happening, again and again, for the first time. I will always see it as a movie.
       The screenplay sections, involving Adam's visits to Aspen, Colorado and its Hotel Jerome, are a journey to his own beginnings, as he was conceived there. While his father never figured in his life -- never even knew, until late on, that he has this son --, he is a constant sort of presence (not least in his films, as he is an actor and writer), and Adam eventually does want to meet the man in person, one big step in coming to terms with a very complex (and untraditional) family. Much of the book is also haunted by a variety of ghosts -- most notably Adam's diaper-wearing grandfather (who is also one of the book's early (but hardly only) spectacular deaths).
       Adam's mother Rachel -- called Little Ray -- is completely devoted to skiing. Too small to be truly competitive as a racer, she is a lifelong ski instructor -- which also means that young Adam only really sees and is raised by his mother outside the snow season, for half the year. The rest of the time, he is raised by his grandmother.
       Little Ray intentionally got herself knocked up in 1941, but had no interest in making the father part of her life (and, as it turns out, given his age at the time, hardly could have). A great fan of the diminutive, she chose a small person, and is pleased that Adam remains at least somewhat undersized. Much later she will marry -- a diminutive English teacher from Exeter that her son introduces her to, Elliot Barlow -- but it's something of a marriage of convenience. Little Ray knows Elliot can serve as a good protector for Adam as he navigates school, and that she and the teacher can also serve each other as well, as neither adheres to traditional sexual and gender roles: Little Ray turns out to have a longtime lover already, the snow groomer Molly, while Elliot is, deep down -- and then increasingly upfront --, a woman. (They do, however, also deeply love one another.)
       Adam's extended family is close, but also full of tensions. His two judgmental aunts constantly harp on the mores they disapprove of, while older cousin Nora -- who is also Adam's closest friend -- is also a lesbian and, from early on, in a close relationship with Em, who long doesn't speak (not a word). (Adam is also very attracted to Em, a long hopeless kind of lust, but they always remain close -- and eventually get even closer.)
       The family is close-knit, after a fashion, though there are a few outliers -- cousin Henrik, who moves south and becomes a conservative congressman, for example, and is never much in the picture. Adam's father figures more prominently but outside the circle, while most everyone else is very much within. Even when Adam's late-in-life marriage fizzles out quickly, his wife remains connected through both their son and as Em's editor. Meanwhile, much of the family is very close -- almost incestuous, in ways, from the aunts marrying two Norwegian brothers to Adam still often sharing a bed with his mother for way too long. (It's also striking how few friends, in the traditional sense, figure: people are made part of the circle as partners or, for example, a caretaker who essentially becomes part of the family, but actual friends are few and far between; among the only ones who even vaguely fit the role is a schoolfriend of Adam's -- who gets killed in the Vietnam War early on.)
       The characters do have strong independent streaks, from Little Ray getting herself pregnant to Elliot's late-night wandering, dressed up as a woman, to Nora's "haircut statement" (a crewcut) and Adam's determination never to become a good skier, no matter how hard his mother tries to teach him. (Elliot is also not a skier, preferring snowshoeing, which Adam then also enthusiastically takes up).
       The Last Chairlift is very much a family-saga, dominated by Adam's search for a(n outside) partner and some resolution of the issue of who his father is. Adam's early experiences with girls are (meant to be) humorous failures -- with members of the family on hand to deal with the girls after each catastrophe. Adam is drawn to comically inappropriate women -- though tellingly, too, when his mother ultimately sets him up with a partner who sounds like a good fit and whom he then marries, that too doesn't work out.
       The Last Chairlift is also punctuated by rather spectacular deaths -- so many of them, in fact, that it rather undermines their effectiveness. There are several two-for-one shared deaths, there are suicides and murder, and also the simply spectacular: as with much in this book, it's all a bit much, and mostly to too little effect.
       In part, The Last Chairlift is a Bildungsroman, as Adam chronicles especially his coming of age but then also American life during his lifetime. With a familiar strong and hearty defense of sexual and gender rights, Irving is especially hard on Reagan and the conservative turn he sees the United States having made in the 1980s -- in contrast to the decade before:
     That was what the seventies were like for us. We were at liberty -- we had liberty, we took liberties. We felt free to say and write whatever we imagined. We felt free to live the lives we chose. We didn't see the pushback coming. We failed to imagine both the passive and aggressive forms the pushback would take.
       Irving ventures some into the political, certainly on the sex/gender front, and is once again caustic about the (mis)handling of the AIDS crisis. Vietnam also is addressed -- with Little Ray determined to shoot Adam (in the knee) if he should get called up, and regretting not incapacitating Adam's friend who is sent off to war. (Racial issues, on the other hand, are practically invisible in this lily-white novel, as indeed most of the national politics of the 1950s through 1970s are at best mentioned very much in passing.)
       For a narrator who is a successful writer and who is presenting his life-story, Adam reveals surprisingly little about his own works. We learn some about the success of the novels, but essentially nothing about their substance -- an odd void in this big life-story, especially when contrasted with the screen-work of Adam's father, which is described and analyzed in much, much closer detail. This is, of course, part of Adam figuring out his father, as it were -- and there is also a lot about the man's public (and tabloid) life, too (and Adam even notes that his father: "came across as more believable and sympathetic in his interviews than he ever did in his writing or his acting") -- but it's curious that we learn so little about Adam's own art. (Amusingly, Adam at one point admits about his account: "Yes, I know -- I'm leaving too much out. Writing screenplays will do that to you" -- and for all its bloat that is one of the problems with The Last Chairlift, how much is left out.)
       Adam's grandmother reads Moby-Dick out loud to him (at rather too early an age: "She didn't wait for me to be old enough") and it (and Melville's work more generally) are nicely tied into the novel -- itself a similarly digressive and larger-than-life quest-tale. As so often, Irving also aims for Dickensian sweep (and length), and another novel that he has Adam be introduced to early on -- by Elliot -- is Great Expectations; indeed, early on Adam already notes how that book: "would become my emergency novel". Yet even as its influences are reflected in the story, it, like so much here, never comes sufficiently to the fore. Stuffing so much in here, Irving doesn't so much lose the plot as himself and his protagonist.
       There's quite a bit here that is entertaining -- good, colorful storytelling of the kind Irving has often pulled off before -- not least Adam's childhood days, and then quite a few episodes from later on. But the canvas is over-full, and the story often oddly out of focus, with big chunks of Adam's life -- and, especially, the fiction he publishes over the years -- disregarded. It is, ultimately, a very long novel, and simply too baggy; it is, ultimately, a slog -- made manageable by some admittedly very bright spots. But Irving tackles too much here -- and too much of it not hard enough, stuffing it in along the way rather than really going at it.

- M.A.Orthofer, 22 October 2022

- Return to top of the page -


The Last Chairlift: Reviews: John Irving: Other books by John Irving under review: Other books of interest under review:
  • See Index of Contemporary American fiction under review

- Return to top of the page -

About the Author:

       John Winslow Irving, American author, born 1942. Born in Exeter, New Hampshire he graduated from Phillips Exeter Academy. Author of numerous very successful novels, he first achieved widespread recognition with The World according to Garp.

- Return to top of the page -

© 2022 the complete review

Main | the New | the Best | the Rest | Review Index | Links