John Irving’s latest novel is full of empathy and affection for its characters

Filled with familiar themes and tropes, Irving’s Brick of a Winding Novel is as much about the life of a writer as it is the search for belonging.


Photo of John Irving by Derek O’Donnell

THE LAST CHAIRLIFT by John Irving (Knopf Canada, 912 pages). $45. Evaluation: NNNN


After seven years, 80-year-old John Irving returns with his fifteenth novel in a rich and famous career that includes The Hotel New Hampshire, A Prayer For Owen Meany, A Widow For One Year, Until I Find You and In One Person. , books that place him at the heart of our culture, a Dickens of our time.

Narrator Adam Brewster, born in 1941 to a single mother, is a novelist and screenwriter in many ways a figure for Irving himself: his fourth novel, for example, his first bestseller, makes him “self-sufficient as a as a writer,” just as The World According to Garp did in 1978. Nearly a quarter of it, however, is written as a screenplay (remember Irving won an Oscar for Best Adapted Screenplay of The Cider House Rules), a choice that stimulates narrative drive, even if at times the content is repetitive.

Adam’s lesbian mother, Rachel, aka Little Ray, is an expert little skier who spends many months of each year of her childhood away from him, so he is raised by his grandmother who he considers his “mommy.” of winter”. Nana Brewster reads Moby-Dick to him, and young Adam becomes captivated, a fact his older cousin Nora insists has “shaped and messed up” the rest of his life, a life we ​​witness for seven decades.

If, like me, you’re an Irving finalist, you’ll warm to familiar themes and tropes – struggle, sexual politics, secrets, war, perverse accidental death, euthanasia, heartbreak, empathy, love – and the first-person narrative of this winding brick of a novel that is as much about the writer’s life as the search for belonging to our own lives.

Many of the characters are outsiders, maybe even iconoclasts, who push against conformity, like Nora, who pantomimes her partner Em on their biting political and social satire comedy show, Two Dykes, One Who Talks. “The Snowshoer,” Phillips Exeter Academy’s petite English teacher Elliot Barlow, marries Adam’s mother, takes to wearing her clothes, cross-dresses for fun in their small New England town, eventually becoming a transgender woman in her 40s.

Because Adam writes fiction, Mr. Barlow rightly observes that he is a worrier with a heightened imagination for worst-case scenarios. But Adam is also right when he notes, “When you love someone who is different, you worry about them more – you always pay attention to them.” He explains, “The subject of sexual minority had been almost constant background music during the years I grew up.” These outliers, however, are all about family life and, as Little Ray’s longtime love, Molly, reminds Adam, “there’s more than one way to love people.” Family is who loves you.

Love abounds in this story and takes many forms as the characters grapple with the troubled history of their time, including the Vietnam War, the AIDS crisis and the rise of tyranny with the election of Trump. in 2016. Irving faces all of this head-on, defaulting to compassion at every opportunity. But violence is part of Irving’s fantasy world. The corpses pile up like in a Shakespearian tragedy: car crashes, train derailments, avalanches, murders, electrocutions, suicides, AIDS and frights suffocate lives along the way. The darlings are not spared. It is not fair; neither does real life.

There are ghosts, real and imagined, who keep Adam company and also torment him in his quest to find out who his father is. He freely acknowledges that “not all ghosts are seen by everyone”. Yet decades later, he is comforted when his own son, Matthew, sees the ghosts of his grandparents having fun at Toronto’s TTC and reports matter-of-factly, “They don’t age, everything these two are doing is having fun. »

While the repetitive aspects of the plot can be nerve-wracking at times, it’s Irving’s affection and empathy for his characters that shines. Little Ray is right: “We have to be who we are.” And his “one and only” Adam is also right: we do meet people who change our lives. In person and in words.

Janet Somerville (@janetsomerville) is the author of Yours, For Probably Always: Martha Gellhorn’s Letters Of Love & War 1930-1949, available now on audio, read by Tony Award winner Ellen Barkin.

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