First drafted when Gardner was an undergraduate, Nickel Mountain was not published until 1973, when it quickly appeared on the heels of his ambitious novel The Sunlight Dialogues (1972)—presumably to capitalize on the excitement generated by that critically acclaimed best-seller. While not Gardner’s best novel, Nickel Mountain was easily his most popular book with the reading public. Selected by the Book-of-the-Month Club, it was pirated in Taiwan and translated into Danish, Finnish, French, Hungarian, Spanish, and Swedish.
From the beginning of his career, Gardner flatly rejected the peculiar nihilism characteristic of literary modernism. While writers from T. S. Eliot to Samuel Beckett have decried the absence of either scientific or religious authority for human values as they constructed their wastelands of despair and alienation, Gardner has remained steadfast in his advocacy of a literature of affirmation. Yet his defense of human values trades neither in science nor in any conventional sense of religion. In Nickel Mountain, Gardner champions a familial and communal love, dramatized in Henry’s marriage to Callie and his acceptance of another man’s child as his own, as a spiritual bulwark against the terrible chaos of human existence. In the face of the preponderance of modern literature which has abandoned overtly moral concerns, Gardner’s most significant achievement, both in Nickel Mountain and in the novels which followed, has been to offer an acutely moral fiction which is neither moralistic nor sentimental.