Subscriber OnlyBooksReview

The Last Chairlift by John Irving: a long read, not a good one

The book’s truly discomfiting aspect is the hyper-sexualisation of the female characters

The Last Chairlift
The Last Chairlift
Author: John Irving
ISBN-13: 9781471179082
Publisher: Scribner UK
Guideline Price: £25

The Last Chairlift, John Irving’s 15th novel, is 11 shy of 900 pages long. And boy, did I feel every one of those pages.

The Last Chairlift follows the life of Adam Brewster, born in Exeter to a ski instructor mother (a deranged, semi-incestuous nymphomaniac, although I think she was supposed to come across as “kooky”) and an (at least initially) unknown father.

Into the mix Irving pours a raft of cliched characters, including “harridan” aunts, chucklingly good-natured uncles, an inspiring, nay, saintly English teacher-cum-stepfather/mother, and huge, bossy, heart-of-gold lesbians.

Alongside these is a baffling amount of weak literary explication and juvenile political opining. All Republicans seem to be gun-toting assholes, while supposedly likable characters “scream” at CNN in rage. We’re given a summary, as well as numerous interpretations, of Moby-Dick, including what I guess to be Irving’s own take on the inclusion of the titular hyphen (a drawn-out joke on possible misinterpretations of “Dick” ensues). Dickens is quoted at length, while similarities are drawn between a character and Jane Eyre.


The most notably shoehorned element (and there are many, including the ghosts that irritatingly scamper throughout) is the inclusion of excerpts of Adam’s film script – so unnecessary and ill-advised in this already flabby book, it’s difficult not to wonder if this might have been a rejected love-project of Irving’s. Later in the novel, Adam says that “an unmade movie never leaves you”, to which I thought, “ah, if only this one could have!”

The truly discomfiting aspect of this book, though, has to be the hyper-sexualisation of the female characters therein. Early on, a young woman’s loud orgasm is described or referenced, by my count, 16 times. Yes, Irving could argue that this is told from a teenage boy’s perspective, and thus that focusing on all things arousing is only natural. But these leering and, again, endlessly repeated descriptions, read more like the errant mental wanderings of a horny older man than the thoughts of a pubescent boy.

There is so much more I could’ve written (such as the fact that The Last Chairlift of the title is not, as one might assume, a metaphor, but an actual chairlift taken by a corpse), but thankfully, unlike Irving, I have a word count to consider.