The following is from John Irving’s The Last Chairlift. Irving’s first novel, Setting Free the Bears, was published in 1968, when he was twenty-six. He competed as a wrestler for twenty years, and coached wrestling until he was forty-seven. In 1980, he won a National Book Award for his novel The World According to Garp. and in 2000, he won the Oscar for Best Adapted Screenplay for The Cider House Rules. His all-time bestselling novel, in every language, is A Prayer for Owen Meany. He lives in Toronto.
An Unmade Movie
My mother named me Adam, like you-know-who. She always said I was her one and only. Ive changed some names, but not mine, and not the name of the hotel. The Hotel Jerome is realits a great hotel. If you ever go to Aspen, you should stay there, if you can afford it. But if anything happens to you along the lines of what happened to me, you should leave. Dont blame the Jerome.
Yes, there are ghosts. No, I dont mean those ghosts you may have heard were haunting the Jerome: the unregistered guest in Room 310, a drowned ten-year-old boy, shivering with cold and quickly disappearing, leaving only his wet footprints behind; the lovelorn silver miner, whose late-night sobbing has been heard while his apparition roams the halls; the pretty hotel maid who fell through the ice in a nearby pond and (notwithstanding that she died of pneumonia) occasionally appears just to turn down the beds. They arent the ghosts I usually see. Im not saying they dont exist, but Ive scarcely seen them. Not every ghost is seen by everyone.
My ghosts are vivid to metheyre very real. Some of their names have been changed, but I havent changed a single essential thing about the ghosts.
I can see ghosts, but not everyone can see them. As for the ghosts themselves, what happened to them? I mean, what made them ghosts? Not everyone who dies becomes a ghost.
This gets complicated, because I know that not all ghosts are dead. In certain cases, you can be a ghost and still be half-aliveonly a significant part of you has died. I wonder how many of these half-alive ghosts are aware of what has died in them, anddead or aliveif there are rules for ghosts.
My life could be a movie, you hear people say, but what do they mean? Dont they mean their lives are too incredible to be realtoo unbelievably good or bad? My life could be a movie means you think movies are both less than realistic and more than you can expect from real life. My life could be a movie means you think your life has been special enough to get made as a movie; it means you think your life has been spectacularly blessed or cursed.
But my life is a movie, and not for the usual self-congratulatory or self-pitying reasons. My life is a movie because Im a screenwriter. Im first and foremost a novelist, but even when I write a novel, Im a visualizerIm seeing the story unfold as if it were already on film. Like some novelists, I know the titles and plots for novels that I wont live long enough to begin; like screenwriters everywhere, Ive imagined more movies than Ill ever write. Like many screenwriters, Ive written screenplays that Ill never see made as films. I see unmade movies for a living; I watch them all the time. My life is just another unmade movie, one Ive seen beforeone Ill go on seeing, again and again.
They publish your novel, they make your screenplaythese books and movies go away. You take your bad reviews with the good ones, or you win an Oscar; whatever happens, it doesnt stay. But an unmade movie never leaves you; an unmade movie doesnt go away.
I first heard about Aspen from my mother; shes the one who made me want to see the Hotel Jerome. I have my mom to thank, or not, for my going to Aspenand her to thank, or not, for why I put off going there for a long time.
I used to think my mother loved skiing more than she loved me. What we believe as children forms us; what haunts us in our childhood and adolescence can make us do wayward things, but I dont blame my mom for telling me that her first love was skiing. She wasnt lying.
My mom was an expert skier, though she would never have said so herself. The story I grew up with was that my mother had failed in competition; henceforth, in her estimation, her skiing was no better than fair to middling. A lifelong ski instructorshe preferred to teach young children and other beginnersmy mom wasnt bitter about her failure to compete. As a kid, I never heard a single complaint about her diminutive sizenot from her. From my grandmother, and from Aunt Abigail and Aunt Marthamy mothers older sistersI heard a litany of grievances concerning my moms size.
Weight equals speed, was the condemning way Aunt Abigail put it. Abigail was a hefty woman, especially in her hipsmore bovine than svelte in a pair of ski pants.
Your mom was just a little thing, Adam, Aunt Martha told me with disdain. In the downhill event, you have to weigh more than she ever didshe was strictly a slalom skier, a one-event girl.
She just didnt weigh enough! my grandmother would periodically exclaim; in these spontaneous outbursts, her arms reached for the sky, fists clenched, as if she held the heavens accountable.
Those Brewster girls, my mother included, were fond of dramatizing their exclamatory remarks, though my grandmotherMildred Brewster, whose maiden name was Batesalways maintained that drama was more characteristic of a Bates than a Brewster.
I believed her. Evidence of the dramatic developed slowly in my grandfather, Lewis Brewster. I was told hed been the principal of Phillips Exeter Academy, albeit briefly and with no accomplishments of significance. Throughout my acquaintance with Principal Brewster, as he preferred to be called (even by his grandchildren), he was retired. As a perpetual principal emeritus, gloomy and sternbordering on catatonicthe former headmaster seemed destined to live forever. Little seemed to affect him. It would take the heavens to kill him.
My grandfather didnt speak; he rarely did anything. I used to think Lewis Brewster had been born a retired head of school. To whatever was said or done, Granddaddy Lew, as he hated to be called, would respond (when he reacted at all) with no more than a nod or a shake of his head. To engage with children, his own included, seemed beneath him. When he was vexed, he chewed his mustache.
Of course, I was not yet born when my mother told her parents she was pregnant. Before I knew the story, I used to wonder what Principal Brewster had to say about that. I was born one week before ChristmasDec. 18, 1941. As my unwed mother would never tire of telling me, I was ten days late.
From The Last Chairlift by John Irving. Used with permission of the publisher, Simon & Schuster. Copyright 2022 by John Irving.