It’s not very Christmassy, but there’s a lot of snow

Review: Vivien Horler

The Last Chairlift, by John Irving (Scribner)

Many years ago I was in a London book shop, torn between three books. One was John Irving’s The World According to Garp. When I couldn’t make up my mind, the shop attendant put the other two books aside and said: “Take Garp. This is the novel to end all novels.”

The Last Chairlift is a bit like that. It’s a monster of a book, nearly 900 pages, and it took me two weeks to read. It’s about New Hampshire and Aspen in Colorado, it’s about ghosts, it has gay and trans characters, movie stars, stand-up comediennes, wrestling, and a lot of skiing.

It isn’t a very Christmassy book to be posting on Christmas Day, but there is also a lot of snow.

And it’s also about tolerance and love.

The central character is Adam, whom we meet in his early teens. He’s the only child of a single mother, who is a ski instructor in Vermont. Once  Little Ray had aspirations towards being a competitive skier, but as her mother pointed out, she was small and light, and to be a serious downhill contender you need weight.

In 1941 she took part in the Women’s National Slalom Championship in Aspen, but although she did not do well, she did come home pregnant. Ray won’t be drawn on the identity of Adam’s father, saying only that she had wanted a child “with no strings attached”. And she would add: “You’re my one and only, sweetie.”

But in fact Ray has a few loves. One is Elliot, the English teacher at Adam’s private school, who is also a very small wrestling coach. Ray likes small men, and she marries Elliot at an extremely eventful wedding which for a number of reasons no one ever forgets.

She also turns out to be in love with Molly, her matron of honour and a woman who makes her living as a ski trail groomer. They go on to the mountain after the ski lifts stop for the day and tidy the trails.

Somehow, although it seems unlikely, Ray, Molly and Elliot (he’s a snowshoer – it’s a real winter sport, I looked it up) make it work, and Elliot becomes a staunch and loving stepfather to Adam.

Two other key characters are Adam’s cousin Nora, who is a stand-up comic, and her partner Em, a pantomimist who has stopped speaking. Fortunately Em is a gifted mimer and Nora is able to translate for her. But Em is not entirely silent – she is known for her very loud orgasms.

Well before Adam is old enough to go to Aspen on his own to see where his life began, so to speak, he has started seeing ghosts. There is his grandfather, who used to teach English grammar, and then a motley crew from Aspen – a few 19th century miners from the time when Aspen was at the centre of silver rush, a cowboy, a hotel cleaner who could be Italian or Mexican, and a boy in his early teens who wears a bobble hat and shovels snow.

Adam will meet these ghosts when he goes to the Hotel Jerome in Aspen and unravels the secrets of his past.

Adam, who becomes a best-selling author, also meets Grace, a publisher. She comes from a proper family, and when she and Adam marry and have a son, Grace starts to worry that Adam’s unconventional family will lead little Matthew astray.

But as becomes clear, Ray, Elliot, Molly, Nora and Em may be unconventional, but they are loyal and devoted to each other, and to Adam and Matthew as well.

A great deal happens in this novel, from wrestling and muggings to an onstage shooting and death in the snow – several deaths in the snow. In some places it’s a bit slow-going, particularly if you’re not wild about movies of the 1950s, wrestling and skiing greats, but by the time you get to the end the characters have worked their way into your heart.



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