The following review by Victor Lindsey is copyright protected and may not be reproduced without permission of the author:
Gardner, John. Nickel Mountain: A Pastoral Novel. With etchings by Thomas O'Donohue. New York: Knopf, 1973.
If you don't like novels with monsters or magicians, or novels with novels inside them, then John Gardner, versatile as he was, still may please you with Nickel Mountain. This pastoral novel seems simple in its style and ordinary in its subject, but it has a richness beneath the surface that merits repeated readings.
Gardner sets his story in the Catskills, and, though the names of the main towns are fictional, the story gives a sense of reality, a sense that the places ought to exist on a Rand McNally map somewhere and, if you had it, you could drive through New Carthage and park in front of the Stop-Off, the diner and gasoline station Henry Soames owns, operates, and lives in at the edge of the woods beneath Nickel Mountain. As the novel begins in the snow of December 1954, Henry is middle-aged, very fat, and afraid that a second heart attack will kill him within a year. Business is bad, but Henry keeps his place open late, even if just for drunks. Then, in the spring, comes Callie Wells, the sixteen-year-old daughter of a woman Henry had wanted to be his girlfriend when they were in school together.
The novel is about Henry and Callie, and about a rebellious adolescent-intellectual and a lonely Korean War veteran and an old, ageless doctor and a friendless Jehovah's Witness. It is a pastoral with wrecked trucks, manure, a dead cow, and a severed arm. The characters kill, resent, betray, fear, strike out in rage, and abide in guilt, but at least one of them loves the hardly lovable, acts with compassion when decency is at stake, and forgives without show. The characters are grotesques, some of them, but Gardner makes his readers feel their importance, their humanity.
Nickel Mountain is a novel about our kind, often bizarre and sometimes noble, and about ritual amid ordinary, unending change--decay, renewal, death, birth. It is a novel in which John Gardner suggests something about the way our ordinary life is and the way it might be.
updated on 9 August 1998