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The world according to Irving: “The Last Chairlift” takes readers for a ride

A man walks his dog near Hotel Jerome around the 1930s. The historic Aspen hotel plays a prominent role in John Irving’s new novel, “The Last Chairlift.”
Courtesy of Aspen Historical Society
A man walks his dog near Hotel Jerome around the 1930s. The historic Aspen hotel plays a prominent role in John Irving’s new novel, “The Last Chairlift.”

Author John Irving has made himself a household name for novels such as “The World According to Garp,” “The Cider House Rules” and “A Prayer for Owen Meany.”

His latest book, “The Last Chairlift,” contains plenty of familiar Irving themes, plus a story of skiing, ghosts and Aspen’s Hotel Jerome that spans eight decades and almost 900 pages in sprawling Irving fashion.

In the fictional world of Irving’s latest saga, narrator and protagonist Adam Brewster might not even exist were it not for skiing in Aspen in the 1940s.

Brewster’s mother, Ray, was a slalom racer just shy of 19 years old when she rolled into town in time for the U.S. National Championships for downhill and slalom skiing in 1941.

Ray didn’t get near a podium, really, but she did get pregnant in a no-strings-attached situation with a younger boy she met at Hotel Jerome. And she remains a skier when she returns home to New Hampshire, where Adam grows up resistant to the sport that so often took his mom away to teach skiing on the mountain.

But Irving says he didn’t set out to write a story so driven by skiing. In fact, he didn’t even have a location in mind, as he started the book.

“The characters began the story,” he said in a Zoom interview Thursday.

Before Irving knew Ray Brewster would be a skier, he wanted her “to be a person who is almost oblivious to risks, to be a person who is courageous and independent, … someone who is unmoved by conformity or conventionality,” he said. “For all these things that might be admirable, courageous about her, she has within her the capacity to take a step too far.”

Irving wanted her to be a competitor, too. She’s not a winning one but, rather, one with the gumption to compete anyway.

That’s when he landed on a skier who wasn’t quite big enough to pick up sufficient speed in the downhill.

“There's always something that's been a little compromised about her, but her pluck is kind of ingrained,” he said. “She'll take chances.”

It won’t come as a surprise to avid Irving readers to learn that “The Last Chairlift” is woven with the thread of sexual politics and an embrace of people who don’t identify as straight or cisgender.

Adam, the main character, is the only straight guy among the people “who mean the most to him, who love him the best and whom he loves back,” Irving said.

Even so, the political element comes later in the writing process, Irving said.

“I begin with, ‘What's the story? Who are the characters? What's going to happen to them? Where do they end up?’” Irving said. “And then if I see a social, political issue that is organic to these characters I'm thinking of and their history, then I don’t hesitate to use it.”

Then there are the ghosts — figures of Aspen’s distant past and of Adam Brewster’s not-so-distant family history — who make frequent appearances in the chapters of “The Last Chairlift.”

Irving says he didn’t set out to write about ghosts either.

But some might consider them almost intrinsic to the Aspen element of the story. They’re miners and Ute warriors and Jerome B. Wheeler himself. They may not be the ghosts most frequently seen at Hotel Jerome, perhaps, but Irving is well acquainted with those ones, too.

Irving says he’s stayed at Hotel Jerome more times than he can count, and claims it’s his favorite hotel in the country — even if he’s a little disappointed that he hasn’t had any ghost sightings himself as a guest.

“What intrigued me especially about Aspen as a ski town and the Jerome as a hotel was that it had a life prior to skiing,” Irving said. “It had another life, and that gave it more age and more history than a lot of America or American hotels generally have.”

But that doesn’t mean “The Last Chairlift” is a spooky story.

Irving cites a line, near the end of the book, that suggests that “the people you love don't go away,” he said.

“Ghosts or no ghosts, … we still see them,” Irving said. “I wouldn't call that haunting. I think to be more psychologically accurate, the people who meant the most to you, dead or alive, they hang around.”

Aspen, skiing and ghosts are new elements for Irving to explore in “The Last Chairlift,” but there are plenty of the author’s familiar hallmarks too: time at Exeter in New Hampshire, wrestling, a mother figure, a missing father and a good-guy stepfather.

Those elements are rooted in Irving’s lived experience, but it doesn’t make this book — or any of his others — a real-life story under the guise of fiction, he says.

“The beginning of the story is grounded in reality, my own, an autobiographical beginning,” he said. “None of the things that then happen, that later happen — these things are completely fiction, and they're different every time.”

There’s a line, about two thirds of the way through the book, in which Adam says, “Autobiography just isn't good or bad enough to work as fiction.”

Irving, who has found great success in novels that contain some autobiographical elements of his life, still believes that’s true.

“If autobiography were sacred to me, if I were reverential concerning my own, I wouldn't keep changing it,” he said. “It doesn't really matter to me. It's nothing but a stepping-off place.”

For him, it’s just the first step toward a story that’s entirely different from the messiness of real life, even if the lives of his characters can get pretty messy, too.

“Fiction is a construction, and in my case, it's entirely an ending-driven or plot-driven construction,” he said. “I know where I'm going before I begin. Autobiography does not work that way, right?

“Real life is really sloppy. There's all kinds of detours and byroads and side roads.”

Copyright 2022 Aspen Public Radio . To see more, visit Aspen Public Radio .

Kaya Williams
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