Ive been growing old waiting for the Gardner revival (the deceased literary novelist not likely to be confused with the living spy novelist John Gardner, although it bears mentioning), and was pleased to see October Light come back into print a brilliant meta-novel fit to hold its own among the Lethems and Franzens and Safran Foers of today. Okay publishers: now it is time to reprint Nickel Mountain: A Pastoral Novel, a more subdued, realistic turn from the protean Gardner, and one of my favorite books of all time.
To make a case for the latter, the first quarter of the book - Henry Soames minding his diner, gas-station combo, musing on his obesity induced heart condition and memories of his families, until his habits are interrupted by a young waitress hired at the request of a friend - is some of the most accurate writing I've read describing loneliness. The wedding itself is the high point of the book's writing, hitting what I've come to think of as the F. But after that, the book starts to wander. (How many great short stories, I wonder, are locked inside wandering books?) Compared to Cat on a Hot Tin Roof, Under The Volcano, etc, it never really digs into the problems that lie under Soame's eating addiction. It doesn't, alternatively, and like another obscure realist, Frederick Barthelme, dig into the marriage. Barthelme's odd virtue is his ability to set up a problem and then meander through daily life until it, somehow, through minute adjustments of feeling and through the simple passage of time, come to a conclusion. Instead what the book does it start to wander into the lives of people who come into the diner. One wonders if Gardner wasn't ready to confront his own thoughts on marriage, or on addiction.
We read Grendel as college freshmen and Gardner really got me to thinking about my own writing at the time.
Gass writes of Gardner: He caused to rise up like an enveloping vision a fictional world that would help us live better in the real one. Having visited this fictional world I feel better able to live in the real one.
Over the years, I've encountered references to the late John Gardner & have had a copy of Nickel Mountain gathering dust for ages. Gardner spent well over a decade fine-tuning the novel, while also teaching & working on other stories but with the result that Nickel Mountain at times still resembled a work-in-progress, at least for me. What Gardner does quite well is to frame the story, set in a combination small-town Catskills diner with a gas pump outside & a lean-to add-on as living quarters to the rear for Henry Soames, the proprietor. The comparison may not be completely apt but I felt that Chapin could have animated the woebegone characters in Nickel Mountain, including George Loomis who was injured by machinery ages ago & frequently limps into Henry's diner but who lives in a darkened 15 room house, someone whose seemingly ominous background story is alluded to but never really illuminated. Meanwhile, a bit like Ben Bulben, prevailing over the County Sligo town where W.B. Yeats grew up, Nickel Mountain looms in the background of the diner, almost like a character whose force is felt but never really delineated. At last George said (speaking of the Goat Lady), "No, I never saw her." Henry looked at him, pitying him, George Loomis no more free than a river or a wind, & as if unaware that he was doing it, Henry broke the cookie in his hand & let the pieces fall.
I love this book, but I could see how others would think it slow, stupid and plain silly, or that the people not realistic..I understand, I guess. Drunk from the huge, stupid Love of Man that moved through his mind on its heels, empty and meaningless as fog...Pg. 31 anything you make at all has got to be finding out what you want to make. I mean, finding out what you are..- I dont know. Henry Soames is an over weight, sentimental, sometimes angry, always questioning, often confused middle aged man...Hey wait, maybe I now realized why this novel speaks to me so much. You can look and any classic representational painting, renaissance maybe, or perhaps even impressionism, and you see the story and are often moved by the concepts you see presented so well. But some can look at something more abstract or maybe Rothko paintings where emotions can scream at you from the canvas (again if you are so emotionally inclined), but others see just messy blocks of colors.
Gardner is supposed to be one of those 'good' writers who are hard to read.
I have seen Nickel Mountain touted as a love story, but I don't see much love in it, except perhaps for the love both Henry and Callie have for the child.
I began reading Nickel Mountain by John Gardner because I wanted to see if one of the most renown teachers of fiction could actually write as well as he expected others to. When an acquaintance suggests Soames hire his teenage daughter to help run the place he agrees. Good fiction according to Gardner "creates a vivid and continuous dream" for the reader, but his writing is difficult and complicated not at all vivid and continuous. Since I abandoned Nickel Mountain at page 33, I can't say whether moral truths about human existence were ever affirmed, but for the pages I did read I can affirm the story was depressing and monotonous, filled with insignificant details I imagine the reader was supposed to infuse with meaning, meaning which bordered on creepy.
As a child, Gardner attended public school and worked on his father's farm, where, in April of 1945, his younger brother Gilbert was killed in an accident with a cultipacker.