Irving, surrounded by memorabilia and family photos in his bunkie-turned-writing shack, complete with modern tech and old-school pen and paper. Photo: Paul Alexander; Inset: John Irving's 'The Last Chairlift'
The Last Chairlift: At Home With John Irving, Discussing His Biggest, Boldest Novel Yet
The 80-year-old's latest book — which clocks in at 912 pages — slaloms through a breathtaking family saga set in New England ski country. / BY Kim Honey / October 3rd, 2022
If this were a John Irving novel, I would meet a cataclysmic and undignified end before setting foot on the rocky island north of Parry Sound, Ont., where the venerated American Canadian author spends summers at the cottage with his wife, Janet Irving. In my script, the boat hits a shoal, I catapult into Georgian Bay and, before a monster muskellunge mistakes my silver jewelry for a lure and drags me under, I surface briefly to glimpse a man on a boat called The Octopussy shooting off flares and exposing himself.
I can’t make this stuff up — muskies have been known to attack humans, and the exhibitionist on the James Bond-themed boat was arrested by police this summer about 100 kilometres away — but John Irving can.
In The Last Chairlift, his first novel in eight years, a wedding rehearsal dinner at the Exeter Inn in New Hampshire is disrupted by an ungodly orgasm from a nearby room. Minutes later, a wayward cupcake launched from a lacrosse stick hits a traumatized server, who thinks she’s been shot because her uniform and hands are smeared with cranberry frosting. The next day, after ski instructor Rachel Brewster weds English teacher Elliot Barlow, the bride’s brother-in-law almost chokes to death on a massive piece of Westphalian ham, and her dementia-addled father — wearing only a diaper — is electrocuted by lightning as he beats a rhythm on a cast iron barbecue with metal croquet hoops.
As for my experience, the boat ride from the marina is uneventful, and Janet expertly noses her craft into the dock as Irving comes out of the house and makes his way, surefootedly, down the weathered granite outcrop of the Canadian Shield, wearing a dark-green T-shirt, lightweight grey pants and burgundy running shoes. His shock of white hair is receding and the laugh lines around his mouth are etched a little deeper, but Irving’s dark-chocolate eyes shine with all the wonder and little of the darkness he’s conjured in his 80 years.
Pandemic isolation has been hard, even for a writer used to spending seven hours a day alone, so he seems happy to have visitors. Because of his age and a mild case of asthma, his respirologist advised him to be extra careful of COVID-19, so I took a rapid test before I got in the boat. Janet, who is his agent, jokes that they bubble wrapped him, and Irving deeply regrets he was unable to be in Beijing in February to cheer on his grandson, freestyle skier Birk Irving, 23, who placed fifth in his Olympic halfpipe debut. The Canadian and American book tour planned for The Last Chairlift, which comes out Oct. 18, has been pared back, and Irving will do more Zoom events and only leave Toronto one or two nights at a time so if he does get COVID, he will be home where his doctor can monitor him. He saw his sons Colin and Brendan, who live in the U.S., for the first time in two years when they came to Toronto last October, but he hasn’t hugged his 98-year-old stepfather, Colin Irving, who lives in New Mexico, in three.
When Irving’s 80th birthday rolled around in March 2022, it was just John, Janet and their daughter, Eva, who lives in Toronto, sharing the cake. That means there are a lot of stories pent up in the mind that has given the world 15 wildly inventive novels, including The World According to Garp, The Hotel New Hampshire, The Cider House Rules, A Prayer for Owen Meany and In One Person, and he tells one after another as he shows me around the island property before sitting down for a three-hour hour conversation.
My absolute favourite is the tale about his appendicitis attack, which happened at the cottage a few years ago. After Janet transported him, by boat and then car, to the Parry Sound hospital and he was recuperating, there was “this very objectionable guy” on his floor, roaming around at night making “ghostly weird sounds.” The man started haunting a terrified 12-year-old girl, so Irving sprang into action one night with the only weapon he could find — a bedpan — and “clunked him” on the head.
“It made a very satisfying sound, and the 12-year-old was very excited,” he reports with glee. “The nurses had to write a report, but privately they advised me to say I’d used the bedpan in self-defence. And I said, ‘What? So he wouldn’t go, ‘Woooooo?’ I mean, not really. I didn’t use it in self-defence. I used it to hurt him. Get the f–k away from this kid, you know?”
After I stop laughing, we continue a tour of his writing shack and the small, one-room gym where he works out at least an hour every day. The routine has changed since July 2020, when he suffered a compression fracture in his spine “just rolling around on a mat, doing some warm-up exercises that I had done since I was 14 years old.” Irving had been diagnosed with low bone density, but that was upgraded to osteoporosis after he cracked a vertebrae. Skiing is now off limits, but he still lifts light weights and walks on the treadmill.
It’s a sobering injury for the former wrestler who is in fighting trim, despite surgeries on his knees, hands and rotator cuff. Two years after the fracture, it has healed, but he’s still going to the orthopaedic therapy clinic, and just got back on the stationary bike. Time marches on, and Irving can manage the arthritis in his hands for now — although he concedes some day he might not be able to write in longhand anymore — but what he can’t countenance is the psychological impact of his latest mishap. He handles it with his customary gallows humour, though. “I’m 80, but I wasn’t prepared to feel afraid of slipping in a shower. But if you can break your back on a mat, well, you better be afraid of the shower!”
In a book-related misadventure, I show Irving the grass burn I got in a park as I tried to save my copy of The Last Chairlift from toppling over and losing my place. The book is 912 pages long and weighs more than a kilogram, so the first thing you notice is its size. “I just sent it to someone [and] said if you don’t like it, don’t read it,” he jokes, comparing it to a cinder block. “It’s useful as a doorstop, and you could also use it to seriously injure an intruder.”
He suggests I read it on a slanted Posturite board, like the one on his desk, where he’s on page 185 of his next novel, tentatively titled “Honour’s Child.” The text is handwritten in blue pen on unlined, eight-by-11-inch paper, and covered with old-school copy editing marks like carets and paragraph markers, highlighted in yellow. “I like to be a good ways into a new novel by the time I start talking about the one I’ve finished,” he says, “so that when I’ve finished the talking-about-writing part, I have something that I can step right back into, that I know where I am and I know where I go next.”
As we sit down to talk about his first novel since Avenue of Mysteries in 2015, he notes that, like most of his family sagas, it involves a familiar arc. “I try to find a naturalness in the beginning, but things quickly begin to go off course from the usual or the natural,” he says. The meaning of the title isn’t revealed until deep into the book, but there are clues in its previous working titles. “Darkness as a Bride” comes from a line in William Shakespeare’s play, Measure for Measure, which is quoted in the book’s epigraph: “If I must die, I will encounter darkness as a bride, and hug it in mine arms.” The other was “Rules for Ghosts,” which is now the heading for the third, and final, section of the novel.
The Last Chairlift is long because Irving’s written it in the first person, which means the “narrator has to explain how he or she knows what they know, and so there’s a lot more exposition.” (For more on first-person narration versus the third-person omniscient voice, read the novel, where several characters expound, at length, on the difference and how it impacts a story.)
The novel’s narrator is Adam Brewster, an average kid who resents his mother’s job because, from November to April, the petite ski instructor leaves him with his grandmother in Exeter, N.H. Rachel Brewster works at a northern mountain resort, where she lives with her best friend, Molly, in a dorm “for girl jocks.” In protest, he refuses to learn to ski beyond the intermediate level, because skiing “is what my mom does instead of being a mother.” Rachel’s father, Lew Brewster, stops talking to her when, at 19, she announces her pregnancy without a man in sight. As she tells Adam, “I wanted a baby — all mine, my one and only, no strings attached.”
Although Adam was born in 1941, the story stretches back a few generations as he pursues the identity of ghosts he sees, wearing 19th century clothes, in images that look like black-and-white photos. After describing them to his mother — who also sees ghosts — Rachel says they were taken at the Hotel Jerome in Aspen, Colo., where she once skied in a championship race, and where Adam believes he was conceived. After Lew dies, his ghost appears in the attic bedroom where Adam sleeps, which doesn’t bother his grandson, but scares the crap out of one in a long string of Adam’s “unmarriageable girlfriends,” and, of course, eventually scares two people to death.
The storyline jumps back and forth from past to present to future, and ends in 2019, after Adam marries, has a child at 50, divorces, finds his soul mate and settles in Toronto. It begins when Adam is 13, meets Elliot Barlow, a diminutive English teacher at Phillips Exeter Academy and avid snowshoer, and plots a meeting with his mother, telling her, “I know you’ll think he’s handsome — good-looking and small.” After the wedding, Elliot adopts Adam, who goes on to attend Exeter as a “faculty brat,” wrestle for the prep school’s team and spend most of the novel tracking down the biological father he never knew and his mother refuses to talk about.
If this sounds familiar, that’s because Irving, who was born in Exeter, N.H., in 1942, never met his biological father, was adopted by his stepfather, Colin Irving, an English teacher at Phillips Exeter, and wrestled as a lightweight for the school team. Like Adam, he became a Canadian citizen in 2019, but kept his American citizenship. “There’s never been a more important time to vote, and I don’t want to lose that,” says Irving, who supported Democrats Abroad, the U.S. Democratic Party organization for millions of Americans living outside its borders. During the 2020 election, he recorded a video urging expats to vote for Joe Biden “at a time when President Trump is trying to discredit the election results — in advance of the election, in case he loses.”
Irving is careful to make the distinction between autobiography and autobiographical. “There’s a lot that’s familiar or looks or begins to sound autobiographical about the circumstances, but I use the only few things that were ever interesting to me about my autobiography. I use that to set up things that are fantastical and never happened to me.” For example, it is true that Irving, born John Wallace Blunt Jr., never knew his biological father — an Air Force veteran who survived being shot down over Burma during the Second World War — and was adopted by his stepfather, Colin. His mother always said she’d tell him what happened with Blunt when she felt he was old enough to hear it, and that time came when Irving was divorcing his first wife, Shyla Leary, in 1982. “It was just that her feelings were hurt that he didn’t want to be married, and she had enough means of her own to not need anything from him,” Irving says, relating his mother’s explanation. “So the prospect of his seeing me was a closed door, because she wasn’t taking anything for alimony or child support or any of those things,” he says. “There’s nothing interesting about that story.”
With a glint in his eye, he says he often gets fan mail where the writer claims their life is like a John Irving novel, meaning they identified with “the calamitous dysfunction” in a story. “I always write them back and I commiserate, but I have to watch out that I don’t say, ‘Oh, you think that’s bad. I could make your story much worse.’”
If there’s an architectural frame to his novels, “it is the trajectory of a worsening dilemma,” Irving concedes. In The Last Chairlift, Adam, who grows up to be a novelist and screenwriter, is the “intermediate man” in “Loge Peak,” a film script inspired by his adult life that is so shocking he can’t bring himself to share it with his family. (Loge Peak is one of two movie scripts included in the book). The crux of the novel is that Adam spends too much time wishing he had a normal life, and not enough time appreciating his unconventional LGBTQ family. “This is a story about a straight guy who, in his world, is the odd man out, he’s the weirdo in the family,” says Irving. “ … The straight guy is the dullest guy in the room, and he’s also arguably the dumbest, and he’s also the person who is the most badly sexually behaved. So I like the idea of putting that on its head and just having fun with that proposition.”
The Last Chairlift is an elegant masterpiece about love, tolerance and empathy, shot through with all the political commentary we’ve come to expect from Irving, touching on the Second World War and Hitler, the Vietnam War, LGBTQ rights, the AIDS crisis and abortion rights, not to mention the Catholic Church’s condemnation of sex education, abortion and homosexuality, and its once-secret history of sheltering pedophile priests.
It has a sense of urgency to it, as if he wants to download everything he knows, and wants us to remember. Just don’t call the novel his magnum opus. “It makes it sound like nothing else you’ve done matters to you,” he says.
Irving uses a train analogy to describe all the ideas in his head, where the next stories are boxcars waiting to be coupled to an engine and sent on their way. There are many considerations to weigh when he picks the next story to tell: how much research it will take, how far he will have to travel to do it, what voice he will tell it in, how many characters are in it and how much time it covers. Since he always begins his books by envisioning its conclusion, he used to choose depending on how much of the ending he knew, which was sometimes a sentence, and sometimes a whole chapter. Once he turned 65, he started to pick the harder ones first. “I know this is my last long novel,” he says of The Last Chairlift, adding that “the next two trains out of the station” will be shorter.
Another piece of The Last Chairlift I loved was the concept of an emergency novel, a beloved book you always carry with you in case you are ever stranded with nothing to read. For Irving, and for Elliot, the little snowshoer, it is Great Expectations by Charles Dickens. In one of its famed passages, Dickens writes: “You are in every line I have ever read.” This is exactly how I felt reading The Last Chairlift. When Irving describes Adam’s fear for his transgender relative, I froze. Irving taps a terror that lives in the hearts of families with trans members, the ever-present dread for their safety and well-being. His youngest, Eva, who transitioned from male to female in her twenties, must surely have been on his mind. I worry endlessly about my trans family member, who was repeatedly followed into the men’s washroom in high school and physically assaulted by a bully, a story he never revealed until the perpetrator had graduated.
With one sentence from Adam about his mother’s lifelong friend — “When I missed Molly, if I wanted to see her, I had to look in my heart” — Irving conjured the ghost of my mother, gone 25 years, and the way she comforted me as I was selfishly grieving her loss in her dying days. “Don’t worry, sweetie. I’ll always be here,” she said, covering her heart with her hand.
There’s purpose in the way the author commands the reader to invest in his characters. “The emotional impact of a story has always mattered more to me than the intellectual reasons for writing it,” Irving says, explaining that his books about families contain “an abiding worst-case scenario,” because “in my real life I fear the thought of anything terrible happening to the actual people I know and love.”
As the Irving world turns, so does Earth, and all we can do is “keep passing the open windows,” as the Berry family says in my favourite line from The Hotel New Hampshire. In The Last Chairlift, Adam’s two elderly Norwegian uncles die in a car crash after they miss a turn in a road they knew like the back of their hand. As Nora, their daughter, says: “Those guys weren’t dumb — they knew how to have a good time and they knew when to call it quits.” The phrase that will stay with me from The Last Chairlift, “there’s more than one bend in the road,” has a similar sentiment. The idea that people can choose when they want to leave this life and when to stay is also a motif Irving returns to time and again.
The message is clear: We must keep putting one foot in front of the other, even when the world is in tatters, until we decide to stop time’s arrow. Deep and abiding compassion will buoy us, and there is no greater impetus than love. We’re lucky Irving is here to remind us there is an antidote to xenophobia, misogyny, transphobia, homophobia, sexism, religious moralism and Trumpism. His novels won’t let us forget it, long after the last train has left the station.