John Irving has said “The Last Chairlift” will be his last long novel. If so, readers will get their money’s worth. The book is a 912-page sprawl, full of sex, family friction, skiing, wrestling, and even ghosts, who traipse in and out of the action as if to check on how everything is going. It touches on familiar Irving themes, including steadfast acceptance (offset by harsh judgment) of the untraditional in eras when conformity was the rule. Irving has always loved his eccentrics. Here he gives them a snow-covered mountain on which to play.
The first-person narrator is Adam, a budding writer with lots of questions about his family. He doesn’t know his father; his mom, a petite ski instructor and slalom racer who goes by the name of Little Ray, conceived Adam one night in 1941 in Aspen and has little to say about her partner except that he was young and small (two qualities that run throughout the novel). Growing up in Exeter, New Hampshire, the city in which Irving was born and a region that should ring bells among the novelist’s regulars, Adam has an uncomfortably intimate relationship with Little Ray, who sleeps in the same bed as him and, at least once, kisses him in a manner usually reserved for lovers. When Little Ray decides to get married, her groom is a four-foot-nine English teacher who likes to dress in women’s clothes. That’s OK with Little Ray, whose sexual cohabitation is with a mountain trail groomer named Molly.
We’re deep in Irving country here, peopled by those who proudly don’t fit in (especially not in the early sections of the novel, which take place in the ‘50s and ‘60s). “Like homophobe, transgender wasn’t yet part of our national vocabulary,” Adam tells us. Adam’s prudish, harpy-like aunts instead call Adam’s stepfather “light in the loafers,” and pry into every element of Little Ray’s life. The aunts are easy targets, but they’re necessary in the novel’s grand scheme, representing the harsh judgment of those outside of Adam’s universe.
Irving has a way of choosing a descriptor and tenaciously sticking to it. Little Ray’s husband, Elliot, is “the little snowshoer,” or “the little English teacher.” Molly is “the trail groomer.” Little Ray’s father, who stopped speaking when his daughter became pregnant and passed himself off as the former principal of Adam’s school (Irving’s beloved Phillips Exeter Academy) is “the principal emeritus,” or “the madman emeritus,” or, when he regresses to infancy and starts crawling around in a full diaper, “the infant emeritus,” or simply “the diaper man.”
There’s often a fine line between color and cruelty in “The Last Chairlift,” starting with a mute old man crawling around in a diaper. He’s not the only one defecating himself; one of Adam’s girlfriends, a full-grown woman, does it in Adam’s bed when she’s frightened by the diaper man’s ghost. Another of his girlfriends is called “the bleeder” due to her fibroids. Adam’s cousin, Nora, dates a woman who rarely speaks but has extremely loud orgasms, which Irving takes every opportunity to describe in wincing detail. On the one hand, Irving refuses to be embarrassed by anything, a quality that fits the tenor of his work. But do we really need to see a woman soil herself in her lover’s bed?
The diaper man isn’t the only ghost to haunt these pages. Adam sees a whole collection of them appear like black-and-white photographs, one of whom he suspects had something to do with his very existence. Irving is at home in the supernatural; he traverses the membrane between this world and the next with comfort and ease. A ghost story needn’t be a horror story. It can also be a romantic comedy that includes some characters more scared by living ghouls than ectoplasm. “The Last Chairlift” is eminently readable, stocked with characters and relationships easy to invest in, even when things get a little queasy making. Irving has been cranking out novels for 54 years, establishing a consistent generosity of spirit that continues through his most recent book. If anyone has earned the right to deliver one more gargantuan tome, it’s him. For readers it’s once more down the hill, with a haste that belies the enormity of the task.
THE LAST CHAIRLIFT
By John Irving
Simon & Schuster, 912 pages, $38
Chris Vognar, a freelance culture writer, was the 2009 Nieman Arts and Culture Fellow at Harvard University