John Irving’s new book echoes his own youth as an athlete

| March 2, 2023 | 0 Comments

I have read John Irving, and he has read me.

Mr. Irving has been a subscriber to Amateur Wrestling News since the early 1970s. I’ve been writing 20 years for the publication and am presently the managing editor.

“Wherever I’ve lived, Amateur Wrestling News has reached me,” he said.

John Irving
Photo by Nina Cochran

Mr. Irving, who won the Academy Award for Best Adapted Screenplay in 1999 for “The Cider House Rules,” has woven athletics — especially wrestling and skiing — into much of his fiction. He was raised in New Hampshire, and he grew up skiing. He also wrestled, then later coached.

Irving is back with “The Last Chairlift,” which he insists is his final long novel. The book, his 15th, is supposedly more autobiographical than any of his previous novels, though it isn’t autobiographical fiction. He has frequently populated his books with gay and transgender characters, and his latest is no exception. His life ultimately is not mirrored within the book, but many elements are more than coincidence. Even the novel’s title is a direct reference to his past.

“I’ve lived more of my life in skiing places — in New Hampshire and Vermont, and in Austria,” he said.

The first sentence of “The Last Chairlift” made me laugh outright.

“My mother named me Adam, after you know who.”

I love that.

Oh, and maybe I didn’t mention; this book is funny. How could it not be, with an opening line like that!

The book chronicles Adam Brewster and his peculiar family. It begins in the 1940s and schusses almost to the present. Adam’s mother, a ski instructor who had aspirations to ski competitively on the world stage when she was younger, is secretive about Adam’s father’s identity, and this is a prominent thread throughout the story. She marries Mr. Barlow and, along with Coach Dearborn, another great character who was an All American wrestler from Illinois, wrestling becomes one of the novel’s central elements.

Coach Dearborn wasn’t very enthusiastic about lifting weights. “You want to lift, just wrestle more,” he would say.

Adam prefers wrestling, and tells Mr. Barlow:

‘“I hate skiing,’ I told him. Every ski season, it’s what my mom does instead of being my mother. She keeps trying to teach me to ski, but I refuse to learn.”

Ultimately, “The Last Chairlift” is not about wrestling, though it isn’t really about skiing either; it’s about the characters and their stories.

“Good storytelling is directed to an outcome, one that’s been set up,” said Irving. “A good story isn’t a haphazard journey. An athletic endeavor is similarly determined; training for a sport is specific, not random.”

Irving believes that writers and athletes have much in common, especially when it comes to the process. Writing and training must be efficient and economic, and in order for that to happen, an objective must first be realized.

“I don’t begin a novel until I know the ending,” said Irving.

I believe we sometimes need to give up things that make us happy for things that, surprisingly, will make us happier. Many of Irving’s characters fall under that category (at least the most interesting ones) and there are lots of them in this new novel.

Writers tell us through story something about ourselves. Irving does that well, but he also reveals an awful lot about himself. And this is probably the closest he’ll ever come to writing about John Irving. An autobiography later? Unlikely, if he’s honest about not beginning a work until he knows the ending.

I think Mr. Irving secretly wants to write for Amateur Wrestling News.

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Category: Entertainment

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