Book Review by Roy E. Perry—John Gardner’s “Mickelsson’s Ghosts”



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 for our readers.

“Lord, what fools these mortals be.”
—Puck, in William Shakespeare’s A Midsummer Night’s Dream

On page 286 of John Gardner’s novel Mickelsson’s Ghosts (1982), the protagonist, Peter J. Mickelsson, says to Jessica Stark (Ph.D., Sociology), “I like order.” Ironically, Mickelsson’s life is in great disorder. His life is spinning out of control: rationality collapsing into irrationality, cosmos crumbling into chaos.

A professor of philosophy, Mickelsson mourns the lost love suffered in a divorce from his wife, Ellen. He is in financial ruin, virtually bankrupt because of alimony payments, is hounded by the IRS for three years of unpaid taxes, and is reduced to writing bad checks that begin to bounce. His teaching career at the university is in shambles, and he wolfs down Di-Gels like candy.

So what is Mickelsson to do? He purchases an old, run-down, ramshackle farmhouse, reputed to be haunted, near Susquehanna, Pennsylvania, in the Endless Mountains, at which he works like a dervish to renovate, in a desperate attempt to escape his many problems and silence his demons.

Mickelsson suffers psychotic episodes, “seeing” in the house (which was once occupied by Joseph Smith, Jr., the founder of Mormonism, and at which a murder was committed) the spirits of long-dead people. Turning from community in a hermit-like seclusion, he suffers tortured bouts of weariness, depression, misery, gloom, despair, and agony.

Mickelsson’s world is haunted by dream-thoughts, flash-backs, fantasies, memories, and dreams—images teeming in his tortured brain, which float in the ocean of his consciousness as in Nietzsche’s sea of eternal recurrence.

One of Mickelsson’s worst obsessions is that he is a compulsive womanizer. Witness his ill-advised infatuations: with a 17-year-old-girl, Donnie Matthews; his involvement with one of his philosophy students; and his desperate hunger for Jessica Stark’s affection.

We cringe as Mickelsson’s once-brilliant mind descends into darkness. He himself realizes that his teaching career has been a fraud, and that he is in danger of becoming a buffoon, wearing the jester’s ridiculous cap and bells.

In A Treatise of Human Nature, the Scottish philosopher David Hume sums up, in a nutshell, Mickelsson’s fatal flaw, “Reason is . . . the slave of passion.” In spite of Mickelsson’s many failures to live up to his own ethical ideals, however, one pulls for him, hoping he can extricate himself from his morass of troubles.

In The Communist Manifesto, Karl Marx (with assistance from Friedrich Engels) writes, “A specter is haunting Europe—the specter of communism.” Likewise, a specter haunts Mickelsson’s Ghosts—the specter of Friedrich Nietzsche. Gardner quotes Nietzsche on numerous occasions, so often that one loses count. To a lesser degree, the ghosts of Martin Luther (Nietzsche’s bête noir) and Ludwig Wittgenstein (one of Nietzsche’s “children”) flit in and out of the book’s pages.

A powerful psychological/existential tale of the slings and arrows that flesh is heir to, Mickelsson’s Ghosts is a brilliant philosophical novel that will intrigue anyone with a philosophical bent. Gardner’s last novel may very well be his best.


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); Nickel Mountain (1973); 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:

Do you want to help homeless people in Nashville learn culinary arts and other employment skills that provide a specific, effective path off the streets? Please visit (link below) and consider making a financial contribution. Any amount is very helpful and appreciated. Thank you.


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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