NICKEL MOUNTAIN by John Gardner

This lovely story is set in the Catskills, and, though the names of the main towns are fictional, the story gives a sense of reality, a sense that the places ought to exist on a Rand McNally map somewhere and, if you had it, you could drive through New Carthage and park in front of the run down Stop-Off, the diner and gasoline station Henry Soames owns, operates, and lives in at the edge of the woods beneath Nickel Mountain.

As the novel begins in the snow of December 1954, Henry is middle-aged, obese, and afraid that a second heart attack will kill him within a year. Business is bad, but Henry keeps his place open late, even if just for drunks. Then, in the spring, Callie Wells, the sixteen-year-old daughter of a woman Henry had wanted to be his girlfriend when they were in school together, comes in, looking for a job.  Although Henry doesn’t really need help, he hires her for a few days a week.

Callie is enamored of Willard, a young man with plans to escape his farmer heritage for something better.  She gets pregnant right before he is to leave for college.  But he goes anyway, and assures her he will return.  But of course, he does not.  1954 is not 2017, and Callie needs to get married.  Henry, who over time has come to love this dear girl, proposes to her, and she accepts.  It is a way out of her dilemma.  They set up house in the room behind the diner.   She finally, after a tough delivery, her son is born, and Henry falls in love with the child and considers him his own.

There is not so much a story line as a cast of characters which come in and out of the picture.  It is a story about people, about coping and making do and making things better.  There are a number of deaths in the tale, and we are encouraged to contemplate it  with acceptance that “Things live and then they die”.   It is a story about …… well, about life, I guess.  Just about life.

Nickel Mountain was published in 1973 and was nominated for the National Book Award for Fiction.

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