Book review by Roy E. Perry: John Gardner’s “Nickel Mountain: A Pastoral Novel”


Editor’s Note: Roy E. Perry wrote book reviews for “The Tennessean” and “Nashville Banner” for more than thirty years. “Underground Nashville” is always proud to present Mr. Perry’s latest book reviews to our readers.


“In December, 1954, Henry Soames would hardly have said his life was just beginning. His heart was bad, business at the Stop-Off had never been worse, and he was close to a nervous breakdown.” So begins John Gardner’s Nickel Mountain: A Pastoral Novel (1973).

Henry Soames, the main character of the novel, is proprietor of the Stop-Off diner in the Catskills in New York State. A morbidly obese, “elephant” of a man, Soames, 42, has already had one heart attack, and he’s forever munching on gingersnaps, Oreo cookies, and cheese crackers—while popping little white heart pills. Ole Doc Cathey warns him, “Henry, do you want to kill yourself? If you don’t cut back on your out-of-control eating habits, you’ll die!”

When Calliope “Callie” Wells, 17, turns up pregnant by her boyfriend, Willard Freund (who hastily leaves town), no one will take her in except Soames, who hires her as a waitress in his diner, and later, although 25 years her senior, marries her. Soon, a child, whom they name Jimmy, is born. Although basically a good man—laid-back, gentle, and easy-going—Henry angrily says of Willard Freund, “I’m going to kill him!”

Gardner peppers his novel with interesting characters: “Bible crazy” Simon Bale, who claims to have seen the devil; skeptical, agnostic George Loomis, who had his right arm torn off in his corn binder; an itinerant “gypsy,” called the Goat Lady, who mysteriously comes up missing; and Old Man Fred Judkins, who, when Callie tells him, “You have to have faith,” replies, “No. You have to have the nerve to ride it down.”

With impeccable poetic prose, Gardner describes the topography and changing seasons—the heavy winter snows and the debilitating summer drought—of the Catskills, and the beautiful scenery between Nickel Mountain and Crow Mountain.

Pervasive in this work is a brooding undercurrent of memento mori—our mortality and inevitable demise. Henry tells four-year-old Jimmy, “Everything living will die.” At another time, he muses, “Maybe you’ll find something you thought a lot of, but it didn’t matter, all you could ever count on for sure was someday your heart would quit.”

In his famous work of literary criticism, On Moral Fiction (1979), “Gardner’s central thesis [is] that fiction should be moral. Gardner meant ‘moral’ not in the sense of narrow religious or cultural ‘morality,’ but rather that fiction should aspire to discover those human values that are universally sustaining.” (Quotation from

So what universally sustaining human values do we find in Nickel Mountain? It’s a story of our human struggle against doubts, fears, guilt, and follies, and our search for love, friendship, dignity, and respect. In short, it’s a cautionary tale urging us to rise above the “human-all-too-human,” to come to terms with our mortality, and, against all odds, to use the time remaining to us to find a measure of redemption and grace. Beautifully written, and containing much philosophical and theological food for thought, Nickel Mountain is well worth your time.


Born in Batavia, New York, in 1933, John Champlin Gardner, Jr., was a novelist, essayist, literary critic, and university professor. He was killed on September 14, 1982 in Susquehanna County, Pennsylvania, when he lost control of his Harley-Davidson motorcycle. He is probably best known for his novel Grendel (1971), a best-selling retelling of the Beowulf myth from the monster’s point of view. Among his other best-selling and widely respected works are The Wreckage of Agathon (1970); The Sunlight Dialogues (1972); October Light (1975); Mickelsson’s Ghosts (1982); and The Art of Fiction (1983).

For other book reviews by Roy E. Perry, please visit:

David M. (Dave) Carew is writer/editor of “Underground Nashville” and the author of the novels “Everything Means Nothing to Me: A Novel of Underground Nashville” and “Voice from the Gutter,” both now available at and Dave is also a freelance book editor, publicist, seminar and workshop leader, journalist, and advertising / marketing / public relations writer.

Everything Means Nothing to Me: A Novel of Underground Nashville by Dave Carew—which was praised by The Tennessean as “beautiful, haunting, powerful”—is now available in an all-new paperback edition. For more information, please visit:

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Editor’s Note: “Underground Nashville” covers artists, authors, musicians, poets, political figures, and other compelling people and happenings not typically covered by the mainstream Nashville media. It also presents reflections and commentary from an underground/indie perspective, offering “thoughts from the shadows of a great American city.”

Dave Carew






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