Although Nickel Mountain was published in 1973, it was begun when Gardner was nineteen years old. Despite numerous revisions, therefore, the novel is among the author’s earliest works, and it shows clearly that the basic themes of his fiction were present from the start: the need for love and compassion, the ability of the true artist to adopt the point of view of others, and the need to affirm all that life contains.
The story in Nickel Mountain is that of Henry Soames, the three-hundred-pound owner of the Stop-Off Café, a little eatery deep in the Catskill Mountains of New York State. Henry, gnawed by vague despair, given to heart problems—both literally and metaphorically—receives a new chance at life when he marries Callie Wells, a sixteen-year-old waitress left pregnant by her boyfriend. The novel follows Henry, Callie, and their son, Jimmy, through a year of life and the lives of their neighbors in a small, agricultural community. Although a number of highly dramatic incidents occur, including accidental deaths, other tragedies, and a devastating drought, the core of the plot is how Henry comes to accept life and love again; he becomes, in a sense, what Gardner would term a true artist.
In counterpoint to Henry’s growing acceptance of the world are the characters Simon Bale and George Loomis. Both men are soured and embittered by the world. Bale’s wife died when their house burned, and Loomis was wounded in Korea, jilted by a Japanese prostitute, and has lost an arm in a farm accident. The symbolically named Simon Bale has become a religious fanatic, but his faith brings no joy, only frustration and gloom. He wishes to be a disciple of the Lord (hence the “Simon,” reflecting the original name of the Apostle Peter), but his...
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