Themes and Meanings

(Masterpieces of American Fiction)

Like Sinclair and Steinbeck before him, John Nichols in his trilogy attempts to speak for and about an embattled minority whose voice is otherwise unlikely to be heard. At times, he falls into the shallow trap that often lies in wait for such writers, that of adopting a patronizing or condescending attitude toward characters less literate or articulate than himself. Most of the time, however, Nichols manages to combine humor, satire, and compassion in approximately equal portion, evoking at the same time the breathtaking physical beauty of the landscape being disputed and despoiled. Perhaps to avoid sounding didactic despite an indisputably liberal political stance, Nichols makes frequent use throughout the trilogy of the technique known as Magical Realism, relatively rare in English prose yet quite in keeping with the Hispanic ancestry of his characters.

Ghosts, angels, and strangely personified animals move freely throughout all three novels of the trilogy, conversing with the human characters, observing the action, or at times participating directly in the plot. Such intervention, as Nichols presents it, seems quite consistent with the exotic landscape and its unpredictable weather, yet not even the spirit world can prevail against the invasive forces of big business and big government combined. The death of Eloy Irribarren at the end of The Nirvana Blues underscores Nichols’s conviction that the indigenous civilization so lovingly described throughout the trilogy has itself passed into the spirit world, accessible only by memory or through fiction. In the meantime, Chamisaville serves, in the latter two novels, as a refraction (not a reflection) of American social change from 1930 to about 1980, showing the effects upon a remote, unspoiled region of cultural and political events originating elsewhere.