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.
Gardner felt that aspiring to be an author was almost akin to a “higher calling” and required rigorous study and practice. As well as hard work and sacrifice such a career choice came with duties and responsibilities.
The most important of which is telling the truth, and not just getting facts right, but making sure your fiction is believable and not perceived by the reader as a lie. Foremost it must “affirm moral truths about human existence”.
Well, okay. That’s quite a tall order so I was curious to see if his fiction reflected all that high-minded stuff.
Henry Soames is middle-aged but acts and thinks like an old man. He runs a truck stop restaurant by himself on a lonely highway. Everything about him is depressing; he’s morbidly overweight, he’s got a bad heart, he’s filled with self-pity and shows it, he blames his overbearing mother and failure father for his station in life. This guy is your classic victim and one of the most unsympathetic protagonists I’ve ever encountered.
When an acquaintance suggests Soames hire his teenage daughter to help run the place he agrees. Why does he agree when there’s no indication he needs help and is about as misanthropic as a person can be? Gardner doesn’t tell the reader.
Which is interesting because the relationship between Henry Soames and Callie, his sixteen year-old employee is at the crux of the story.
Technically, Gardner starts with promise – his opening sentence is brilliant. However, he delays the inciting incident until it’s almost too late, and when it is revealed it’s tepid.
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.
My conclusion is that rigorous study and endless practice is indeed necessary for an author, but it’s obviously not a guarantee he’ll write a good book.