I recently finished John Irving’s latest novel, The Last Chairlift, and was viscerally reminded how much I appreciate and revel in his writing.
I first read (and have subsequently re-read a few times) “The World According to Garp” while still in college and I loved it. I liked it so much that I bought his three previous books (Setting Free the Bears, The Water-Method Man, and the 158 -pound Marriage) and while those three forbears were clearly the work of the young artist, they were enjoyable and quirky, just like Garp.
“Professional” reviews of Irving’s work are inconsistent. Some critics love his writing, others not so much. All admit to his ability to tell a story, but some are tired of the Bildungsroman, or Irving’s treatment of sexuality, or that some of his novels are “overstuffed.”
That’s what makes horse-races….I have none of those hesitations. Irving does write about coming of age, sexual maturation, sexual diversity, and family dynamics. Often in ways that make me laugh out loud and occasionally shock me. Life is weird, strange, unpredictable, and confusing, because that’s what people are – weird, strange, unpredictable, and confusing. Yes, Irving’s themes are fairly consistent: children growing up without fathers, parents and friends who explore or discover their sexual identity and/or their sexual preferences, unfair and unexpected tragedies when bad things happen to good people. People learn and come to a better understanding of themselves and their place in this world.
Often, Irving is accused of jarring the reader with out of the blue occurrences – usually the death of a central or beloved character. Sorry folks, but that’s real life. Take it from someone who was pulled out of a sleep-over summer camp with a phone call telling him to come home because his sister was killed in a plane crash 4,000 miles away. Or that your mother has had a stroke, so you jump on the first flight and arrive at the hospital 30 minutes before she dies. Irving does this because, unfortunately, that’s what happens to people all the time. Life is not predictable nor fair. Irving knows this and knows how to depict it.
Irving also has a terrific feel for the ages he has experienced. He can illustrate the social dynamics of the 1940s through the 2000s with an eagle eye for the changes between each age/decade and its contradictions, morality, and its hilarious and not so hilarious social norms and practices. But mostly, Irving has the unique ability to create and depict the enormous variation in how and what constitutes a family and what does and does not keep it together.
He continues to create the most wonderful, complicated, intriguing, and downright fascinating characters. They are complete – Irving gives us the good, the bad, the contradictions, and affectations that make individuals who they are. From T.S. Garp and Roberta Muldoon (the transgender ex-NFL player portrayed quite compassionately and favorably in 1978) in Garp to Owen Meany the eponymous character in A Prayer For Owen Meany to Dr. Larch and Homer Wells in The Cider House Rules to Ruth Cole in A Widow For One Year to Doctor Daruwalla in A Son of the Circus, Irving presents beautifully divined people coping with their world and their insecurities, desires, and passions. This is quite true of The Last Chairlift in which we encounter Adam Brewster, his mother ‘Little Ray’, his mother’s girlfriend Molly, his mother’s husband Elliot Barret, his cousin Em and her girlfriend Nora as Adam grows up and searches for his father. They are all pretty much unforgettable characters.
Women are not stinted by Irving. Jenny Fields and Ellen James in Garp are driving forces of the novel and of T.S. Garp. Candy Kendall is a fascinating women and key player in The Cider House Rules. A Widow for One Year is all about Ruth Cole, and all but one of the main players in The Last Chairlift are women. They are full people, and most of the scenes (and whole novels) would pass the Bechdel test (at least I think they would, but perhaps I am not the best judge of that).
Memory and memories, coming of age, sexual awakening, familial relationships, and family secrets are almost constant themes as are wrestling, Exeter prep school, writing, and fathers, the latter five definitely drawn from Irving’s own life experience and particularly his childhood.
Some of Irving’s novels are better than others, but none are bad or even mediocre. He is a master storyteller, a word craftsman, and as empathetic an author as I have encountered. I have never disliked any of his work.
My personal favorites are The Cider House Rules, The World According to Garp, A Prayer for Owen Meany, Last Night in Twisted River and now, The Last Chairlift, which had me laughing out loud.
Five Irving novels have been made into movies with mixed results according to Rotten Tomatoes —The World According to Garp, The Hotel New Hampshire, The Door in the Floor(based on the first third of A Widow for One Year), Simon Birch, and The Cider House Rules
I thought The Door in the Floor was the worst movie, followed by The Hotel New Hampshire as the lower quality candidates, but the other three I enjoyed immensely and think the Tomatometer score is particularly low for Garp (Robin Williams and Glenn Close were terrific and John Lithgow was stellar) and Cider House Rules (where Michael Caine, Tobey Maguire, and Delroy Lindo were fabulous). To my eye, Oliver Platt was terrific in Simon Birch (A Prayer For Owen Meany) as were Ashley Judd and David Strathairn. I would be hard pressed to choose among those three, but perhaps Garp wins by a nose. By the way, Irving wrote the screenplay for Cider House Rules and played bit parts in both Garp and Cider House Rules.
John Irving just turned 80 and has said that The Last Chairlift is his last big novel. I truly hope that isn’t true.
5 thoughts on “Ode to John Irving”
I’ve missed your book reviews. I like John Irving as well.
One of the reasons that I love you, Dan, is because we agree about just about everything. And now I know that we both love John Irving. I’ll order The Last Chairlift tomorrow and, like you, will hope it’s not really his last.
I hope you love it as much as I did. Thanks for the kind words.
An enlightening and balanced assessment of the author and his work, as usual. My favorites among Irving’s novels closely parallel yours, so I look forward all the more to The Last Chairlift.
Dan, great thoughts on John Irving! I used to absolutely love John Irving and read literally everything, but I chucked him after I read The Fourth Hand, which I thought read like a screen play instead of a novel. But maybe he’s shaken that off or maybe it was just me and a bad week.
You’ve convinced me to give him another shot. The Last Chairlift….here I come. Hope all is well, Lisa