Recognized throughout his career as a philosophical novelist, fascinated with abstract ideas and how they are embodied in specific characters, Gardner returned explicitly to this kind of fiction in the final novel he published during his lifetime, Mickelsson’s Ghosts. It is literally the story of a philosopher, Peter Mickelsson, and his attempts to restore meaning and purpose to his life—intellectually, morally, and emotionally.
Mickelsson is a professor of philosophy at the State University of New York, Binghamton, the school where Gardner was teaching at the time of his death. Significantly, Mickelsson’s specialty is ethics, but neither ethics nor intellect stirs him anymore. Separated from his family, hounded by the Internal Revenue Service, drinking too much and too often, and wandering the streets alone at night, unable to sleep, his personal life is a shambles. While on one of his aimless nocturnal rambles, Mickelsson savagely kills a dog which startles him. Surprised at his descent into violence, he decides to move to the country, hoping to regain some order and purpose to his life.
Mickelsson buys a run-down farmhouse in the Endless Mountains, just across the border in Pennsylvania, and begins to restore it, but he finds this harder than he anticipated, just as he finds it difficult to bring clarity back to his own life. The nearby town of Susquehanna (again there is the echo of Gardner’s own life) may be the site of an illegal toxic waste dump; the countryside is infested with sinister, mysterious Mormons. Mickelsson further complicates his own life by his dual affairs with Jessica Stark, a fellow Binghamton professor, and Donnie Matthews, a young prostitute in town. The farmhouse turns out to be haunted, and Mickelsson begins having windy debates with spirits, including the shades of famous philosophers.
Mickelsson reaches a crisis when he accidentally kills a man—an old, fat bank robber whose money Mickelsson needs to pay for Donnie’s abortion. With this death and Donnie’s subsequent flight from town, Mickelsson has reached bottom, and he can at last begin to put his life truly in order. At the novel’s end, he returns to Jessica Stark, and they have sex in a scene of ambiguous but hopeful resolution.
In many ways Mickelsson’s Ghosts returns Gardner to his first published novel, The Resurrection, which was also about a philosopher trying to get his life in order; in a sense, the book rounds out Gardner’s career with the concerns that occupied him in all his writings: the need for community, the search for truly human values, and the place of art as a guide. The book is autobiographical in many aspects, set in the same locale where Gardner lived, and with Peter Mickelsson facing many of the same troubles that dogged John Gardner. The combination of these two forces, artistic and personal, and the fact that Mickelsson’s Ghosts was Gardner’s final novel, give the book a particular poignancy.
This poignancy is reinforced by the symbolic device of ghosts, which figures so prominently in the book. In a sense, Mickelsson himself is a ghost, a man who has died, not yet literally but intellectually and emotionally. As is the nature of ghosts, he wanders through the world able to see and be seen but unable to touch or make full human contact. In all of Gardner’s fiction, process is a vital element, and in Mickelsson’s Ghosts the basic process is the one whereby its hero regains his humanity.
The key element in that process is the power of love, mediated by art. Art in this novel takes two forms: Mickelsson’s study of philosophy and his restoration of the old farmhouse. Both are initially useless, because Mickelsson attempts them in isolation; it is only when he admits others into his life—Donnie, Jessica, the townspeople—that art and love can perform their true function and make Peter Mickelsson more than a ghost.