Although Nickel Mountain was published in 1973, it was begun when Gardner was nineteen years old. Despite numerous revisions, therefore, the novel is among the author’s earliest works, and it shows clearly that the basic themes of his fiction were present from the start: the need for love and compassion, the ability of the true artist to adopt the point of view of others, and the need to affirm all that life contains.
The story in Nickel Mountain is that of Henry Soames, the three-hundred-pound owner of the Stop-Off Café, a little eatery deep in the Catskill Mountains of New York State. Henry, gnawed by vague despair, given to heart problems—both literally and metaphorically—receives a new chance at life when he marries Callie Wells, a sixteen-year-old waitress left pregnant by her boyfriend. The novel follows Henry, Callie, and their son, Jimmy, through a year of life and the lives of their neighbors in a small, agricultural community. Although a number of highly dramatic incidents occur, including accidental deaths, other tragedies, and a devastating drought, the core of the plot is how Henry comes to accept life and love again; he becomes, in a sense, what Gardner would term a true artist.
In counterpoint to Henry’s growing acceptance of the world are the characters Simon Bale and George Loomis. Both men are soured and embittered by the world. Bale’s wife died when their house burned, and Loomis was wounded in Korea, jilted by a Japanese prostitute, and has lost an arm in a farm accident. The symbolically named Simon Bale has become a religious fanatic, but his faith brings no joy, only frustration and gloom. He wishes to be a disciple of the Lord (hence the “Simon,” reflecting the original name of the Apostle Peter), but his...
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Nickel Mountain is a story of moral renovation. Gardner’s mildly ironic opening sentence announces the novel’s preoccupation with the spiritual life of its central figure: “In December, 1954, Henry Soames would hardly have said his life was just beginning.” Indeed, when the novel begins, Henry, grossly overweight and already the victim of one heart attack, is close to a nervous breakdown. Both afraid of and attracted to the storms that whip the snow outside the Stop-Off, his diner at the foot of Nickel Mountain in rural upstate New York, Henry is obsessed by thoughts of his seemingly imminent death. Doc Cathey’s warning that he must lose weight—“You lose ninety pounds, Henry Soames, or you’re a goner”—is a leitmotif of his anxiety.
Yet Henry survives the winter to be drawn from his self-absorption the following spring by the arrival of sixteen-year-old Callie Wells. Largely as a favor to her parents, Henry hires Callie to help him in the diner. His feelings about the changes that her presence brings are mixed. While he regrets the loss of his solitude, he finds himself fond of her and pleased with the avuncular role this girl, twenty-five years his junior, has assigned him. Thus, when Henry finds out that Callie is pregnant by Willard Freund, a young man who quickly decides to act on his father’s injunction that he go away to Cornell to study agriculture, his solicitousness is genuine. It is an equally genuine concern for Callie’s welfare that motivates him when he tries to persuade his bachelor friend George Loomis to marry her. In the course of his lighthearted but adamant refusal to marry Callie (even turning down Henry’s offer...
(The entire section is 686 words.)