This sense of déjà vu stems from Owen’s love for a specific set of subjects and themes: hotels, wrestling, absent fathers, sexual gymnastics, and more. But the familiarity of these elements also speaks to his substantial presence in contemporary literature since the late 1960s. Beginning in 1978, Irving has published four extraordinary novels in a row over a dozen years: “The World Through Karp’s Eyes,” “The New Hampshire Hotel,” “Cider House Rules,” and “Prayers for Irving Meaney.” The popular and critically acclaimed film adaptation brought Irving’s story into American culture more broadly.
Now, at 80, Irving has published his 15th novel, another well-known partially autobiographical epic about a man who goes through a series of pornographic and violent events. Fans of the author’s work will likely be delighted to invite him to investigate this massive rearrangement of his cherished tropes. After all, who wouldn’t be happy to see old Christmas decorations taken down from the attic again? But everyone may sympathize with the narrator of “The Last Gondola,” who admits on page 856, “It seems to me that I’ve been reading.”
Like the Bible, this massive book begins with Adam’s mysterious creation. His mother, a lesbian nicknamed Little Ray, declined to reveal Adam’s father. We’re only told that her union – possibly with an actor or child – was a bizarre event. Ray’s picky sisters were stunned; her father, a retired teacher at Exeter College, sobbed, then stopped speaking. “My mom doesn’t want anything to do with men,” Adam said. “It’s just me.”
Her dedication is complex, and as you’d expect in a New England family, their problems “are all about sex.” As a professional ski instructor, Ray spends six months of the year on the slopes, much to Adam’s disgust. But when she gets home, she’ll make it up to him. Ray and Adam “snuggled together” in a double bed, which is past what might be considered an appropriate age. On one particularly memorable night, Ray stepped over her son’s hips and pressed hard on his shoulders. “When you were thirteen,” said Adam, “your Mother Give you your first good kiss, and you better hope someone matches it or eclipses it – soon. “
In fact, you better hope that someone matches you with a therapist as soon as possible.
Instead, Ray and Adam are entangled in each other’s lives in an alternately sweet and terrifying way. Over the years, Ray has advised her son through a series of comedy disasters and “tragically inclined girlfriends.” There’s the “strong guy on crutches,” the “tall guy with his arm in a cast,” and not to be outdone, the “Bleeder” can’t stop talking about her fibroids during sex, laundry, and breakfast.
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You wouldn’t know this from Adam’s amiable demeanor, but having sex with him was risky business. Young women trapped in showers wreaked havoc by falling down stairs. Nothing could change Adam’s mother, though. She patiently advises caution and repairs the damage like some kind of sex coach. When a young woman named Maud lost control during her orgasm, Adam said: “It was my mom who undid Maud’s legs from around me and pulled me off of her.” When you need a bear, where is it?
These erotic adventures have caused a lot of pain and discussion about poor Adam’s cock. Unsurprisingly, Herman Melville’s Moby Dick remains a literary touchstone in The Last Cable Car, and eighth-grade boys all over the world will be impressed by the number of obscene jokes that Owen draws from Melville’s title profound.
For his part, Adam also had a profound impact on his mother’s romantic life. He put her in the company of Elliot Barlow, an unusually small man who was his favourite teacher at Exeter College. Elliott’s lack of sexual interest in women only helps him be the perfect husband for Adam’s gay mom. “Two mustaches are better than one,” a friend said. Their wedding was one of the most wonderful disasters Irving has ever written about — including a deadly act of God, earth-shattering orgasms and an old man in only a diaper running around on all fours, biting his guests’ ankles. (It must also be Point out that Jonathan Franzen is no longer the primary user of human poo in literary fiction. In “The Last Cable Car” even the ghosts lose control of their guts. You’ve been warned Pass.)
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On the surface, it’s a writer’s coming-of-age story, but like many of Owen’s novels, its real impulse is a rediscovery of family. Is there another major heterosexual male writer who has been a consistent and daring explorer of the great spectrum of human desire? Ray sounds like Oedipus’ nightmare, but she makes her son feel safe and loved. Even with Mr. Barlow’s conversion to a woman, Adam knew Elliott was the best father a man could have. And Adam’s closest friends are her cousin and her female lover, who can only communicate through pantomime. Owen goes to great lengths to emphasize the iconoclastic nature of these characters, only to underscore their mundaneity as loyal family members. On the night of Adam’s mother’s wedding, her real partner told him, “There’s more than one way to love someone.”
It’s a beautiful subject, and there’s a wonderful novel on the subject that’s been trapped in this great test of print. At the beginning of the story, Adam says, “My life is a movie because I’m a screenwriter. I’m first and foremost a novelist, but even if I write novels, I’m a visualizer.”
It would be more accurate to say do your best He is a visualizer. The most engrossing part of “The Last Chairlift” is the powerful cinematic scenes — both comedic and violent. For example, Owen’s depiction of a shooting in a crowded place has such intense visual acuity and kinetic energy that I swear I see it rather than read it. The 200 pages of the novel, presented as the screenplay for the film, follow Adam returning to the hotel where he was conceived.
In a segment like this—whenever “The Last Gondola” aggressively stretches the boundaries of the family—the story is vital and exciting. But the sarcasm coupled with my broken patience brought me a little tearful when Adam said, “Yeah, I know — I’m missing too much.”
Despite the autobiographical elements, the parts about Adam’s success as a writer and his move to Canada are perfunctory and lifeless. Too many chapters sound self-indulgent and redundant. The question is sharpened in lengthy, unpretentious editorial articles—such as about Ronald Reagan or the Catholic Church—that are considered barbershop chatter for insight.
“How many times do I have to say this?” Adam asked. “Unmodified, real life is just a mess.”
Ron Charles review books and write Book Club Newsletter for the Washington Post.
Simon and Schuster. 889 pages $38
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