(Masterpieces of American Fiction)

In Mickelsson’s Ghosts, John Gardner sustains a 590-page dramatization of the daily life, increasing despair, and desperate desires of middle-aged Peter Mickelsson, a once-famous philosopher now sinking into obscurity at the State University of New York at Binghamton. Faced with his failures on several fronts—marital, financial, and professional—the previous master of academic truth must now engage less bookish but far more difficult problems. For setting, Gardner supplies the troubled Mickelsson with the doomed air of 1980, a climate of debate over the big issues—abortion, nuclear waste and arms, Ronald Reagan versus Jimmy Carter—which increases the stress already heavily bearing on Mickelsson by his private crises.

The novel opens with Mickelsson living in a squalid apartment in Binghamton, near the university where he teaches ethics, a now out-of-date discipline among contemporary philosophers. Divorced and lonely, plagued by bills, unpaid taxes, and alimony payments, he ignores apparent necessity, and with a fraudulent loan application he secures a house in the nearby Pennsylvania countryside. There he settles, determined to write the blockbuster book which will redeem his career and bail him out financially. As rumored by his Susquehanna real estate agent, the house proves to be haunted. The ghosts appear and disappear regularly, an old couple, brother and sister, who strike mournful postures and wander from room to room....

(The entire section is 553 words.)


(Masterpieces of American Literature)

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...

(The entire section is 658 words.)