Adventures in American Literature #2: Nickel Mountain

John Gardner (1933-1982) – Nickel Mountain: A Pastoral Novel (1973)

In picking up a $1 paperback copy of this novel at Manhattan’s Argosy bookstore, I looked forward to discovering an American writer who was once popular but has now faded from view. Evidently Nickel Mountain made some impact in the 70s, since it was adapted into a now-forgotten 1984 film starring Michael Cole, Heather Langenkamp and Patrick Cassidy. The novel starts out quite promising but somewhere along the way it loses its footing and introduces too many unnecessary subplots with supporting characters living in the upstate New York town where the main characters reside.

A sizable chunk – or what feels like it – of the novel is devoted to a character named Simon Bale. He appears from out of nowhere, accused of having burnt down his house on purpose, an event which led to his wife’s death. By the end of his section of the book, I was really thrown off from the main narrative about protagonists Henry and Callie. If Gardner had made the novel solely about them and the occasional person to stop in their roadside diner, the story could have been really excellent. Instead it is derailed by numerous distractions. As far as evoking upstate New York, a region which I visit every year and know parts of fairly well, I wish there had been more of a Richard Russo-esque feel to the novel à la Nobody’s Fool.

I can recommend the first 139 pages of the novel, which takes you up to the aforementioned Simon Bale chapters. Gardner’s writing is often very good, so at least you can appreciate the skill of his prose. Even if I didn’t love Nickel Mountain, I have heard good things about some of his other novels – Grendel (1971, which retells the tale of Beowulf from the monster Grendel’s point of view), The Sunlight Dialogues (1972), October Light (1976), Mickelsson’s Ghosts (1982) – as well as his famed books on what Wikipedia calls “Criticism and Instruction,” including On Moral Fiction (1979), On Becoming a Novelist (1983), The Art of Fiction (1983) and On Writers and Writing (1994).

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