Mickelsson's Ghosts Summary
by John Gardner Jr.

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Mickelsson's Ghosts Summary

(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opens with Mickelsson living in a squalid apartment in Binghamton, near the university where he teaches ethics, a now out-of-date discipline among contemporary philosophers.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. Mickelsson grows accustomed to the strangeness of his new home as well as the strange goings on in the nearby hills—mass Mormon baptisms and discoveries of circular pulverized patches reputed to be UFO landing sites.

The novel’s action is divided between what Mickelsson does in Binghamton— teach Plato, talking to students and colleagues whenever he is unable to avoid them— and what he does at the house and in Susquehanna, the small town where he meets and becomes obsessed with Donnie Matthews, a teenage prostitute. Donnie’s bestial allure contrasts with his growing affection for Jessica Stark, a beautiful Jewess who teaches sociology at the university. Discussions of abortion in Mickelsson’s medical ethics class are existentially troubling when Donnie becomes pregnant and demands money for an abortion. The ethics professor descends to new depths, breaking into the apartment of a fat man who has a cache of stolen money that Mickelsson discovers while crawling up the fire escape to spy on Donnie. The break-in frightens the fat man to death—by heart attack. Mickelsson gives the money to Donnie, who leaves Susquehanna permanently.

Paralleling Mickelsson’s personal trauma and leading to the novel’s climax are the mysterious deaths of a couple living in the hills, previous owners of Mickelsson’s home. Another philosopher, Edward Lawler, is a member of a bizarre Mormon sect searching for documents that purportedly prove the Mormon scriptures fallacious. He murders two students, then the neighbor couple, and arrives at Mickelsson’s, demanding at gunpoint the tearing out of all the house’s interior walls. Hours later, the weary Mickelsson is reduced to praying to a God he has never believed in, and he is saved by a passerby’s previously mute daughter, who hears Mickelsson’s psychic entreaties and tells her father to knock on the door. At novel’s end, Mickelsson, bereft of hubris, pledges his love for Jessica Stark in a bedroom full of ghosts, “pitiful, empty-headed nothings complaining to be born.”


(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...

(The entire section is 1,211 words.)