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opens with Mickelsson living in a squalid apartment in Binghamton, near the university where he teaches ethics, a now out-of-date discipline among contemporary philosophers.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.)