Last Updated on May 7, 2015, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 731
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 influence is harmful (baleful). Henry Soames, who is frequently compared to Jesus, takes Bale into his house but is unable to bring love into the man’s soul. In the end, Bale dies—perhaps by accident, perhaps by disguised suicide—by falling down the stairs at Henry’s house. Twisted faith has killed the man, and he ends up literally twisted and crushed at the bottom of the steps.
George Loomis also withdraws from the world, retreating into his sense of the past. He lives in a house which has been in his family for more than two hundred years, and he derives his greatest pleasure from fondling the family heirlooms. Things, rather than people, have become his life. Early in the novel George has the opportunity to marry Callie—in fact, Henry himself makes the suggestion—but he rejects it, a symbolic rejection of the world outside his dark and shuttered prison. Like Simon Bale, George Loomis represents an alternative which Henry Soames wisely rejects.
Nickel Mountain is subtitled A Pastoral, and through the subtitle Gardner is indulging in a characteristic multilayered use of language. On one hand, the novel is literally a pastoral in the sense that it fits into the requirements of a particular literary genre that stretches back to classical Greece: The action takes place in the countryside, the characters are farmers and their families, cities are seen as embodiments of evil, while nature is the only source of goodness and true morality. All of these elements are present in Nickel Mountain.
On the other hand, the novel is “pastoral” in a religious sense. Henry Soames is the pastor, or good shepherd, of his small family, and by extension, of the entire community around Nickel Mountain. Numerous comparisons between Henry and Jesus are made in the book, most notably to Christ’s willingness to be crucified for the sake of humanity. In the novel’s climactic scene, the members of the farming community gather at the Stop-Off to wait for the rain they desperately need, and they sing “Happy Birthday” to Henry.
The reader will sense the parallel between Christ’s birth—which ensured salvation—and Henry’s, which in a sense redeems his neighbors. Simply by singing the song they feel better, and later it does indeed rain. Still, Nickel Mountain does not advocate any particular religious doctrine or specific beliefs. Rather, it emphasizes that belief itself is important and that the varieties and particularities which individuals may select should all be tolerated, respected, and encouraged as long as they aspire to moral goodness and love.
Last Updated on May 7, 2015, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 686
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 of fifteen-hundred dollars), George playfully leads Henry to the startling conclusion that he loves Callie himself. The shock precipitates another heart attack for Henry, and Callie moves into the diner for several weeks to take care of him. Once he has recovered his health, she returns home, and Henry finds himself suddenly more lonely than he has ever been. When Callie, worried about him, goes back to the Stop-Off late in the evening of his first night alone since his illness, Henry confesses his love to her. In the small hours of the morning, he takes her home to ask Frank Wells for permission to marry his daughter, and less than three weeks later, Henry and Callie are married.
The months that follow are filled with intense activity, as Callie’s pregnancy progresses and Henry builds an addition onto the diner to accommodate his growing family. Yet Henry is secretly troubled by the possibility of the return of Willard Freund. In December, after a long and difficult labor, Callie gives birth to baby Jimmy. The event marks an emotional turning point for Henry; he realizes that the world has been changed by it (“it seemed to Henry, it was different now”) and that by his being a party to the birth and accepting all of its consequent responsibilities, he has entered into a community of familial bonds which militate against any sense of personal alienation. He also discovers that he is much less disturbed by any thoughts about Willard’s return.
Although his road to spiritual health is not without its obstacles—Henry suffers a serious reversal when he slips into a life-threatening anomie after the death of Simon Bale, a death for which he blames himself—it is clear by the end of the novel that Henry has made significant progress. In the last episode of the novel, Henry and four-year-old Jimmy come across a graveyard where an elderly couple is exhuming the body of their dead son. The spectacle of death no longer frightens Henry, for he now accepts it as a consequence of the natural order of things. No longer an alienated and lonely individual who despairs at thoughts of his own death, Henry implicitly invokes the ameliorative strength of familial and communal bonds when, in consoling Jimmy in his disappointment over not seeing the dead boy in the raised coffin, he tells him that he loves him.
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