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One of Gardner's longest novels, most personal, most ambitious--and alas, too, the most shambling and ultimately incredible. Peter Mickelsson is a 40-ish philosopher, a famous ethicist now on the faculty of the State U. in Binghamton, N.Y. But he's sore beset at every turn: his divorcing wife is bleeding him dry financially; his son, an anti-nuke commando, is in hiding; the IRS is after Mickelsson for non-payment of years of back taxes; and the Pennsylvania-border farmhouse that he's just bought for a song (and is rehabilitating) is definitely and very scarily haunted. Still, all that is only level one of Mickelsson's woes. He has also become romantically torn between a sociologist named Jessie and a local teenage whore, Donnie; a student of his, meanwhile, is suicidal. And level three: Mickelsson, suffering the Raskolnikovian fumes of ethical relativism, goes out and kills a shadowy fat man in order to steal the man's thousands in order that Donnie will not abort Mickelsson's child. The murder is never pinned on Mickelsson. In fact, it's all but lost in the shuffle of ever-growing farfetchedness which the book slips into next: fanatic Mormon hit-squads (having to do, as well, with the ghosts in the Mickelsson house); illegal chemical dumping; various and constant crises of faith and nervous breakdowns that turn Mickelsson into a walking falling-rock-zone. Thus, the novel is simultaneously a ghost story, a chronicle of dark nights of the soul, an anthology (like Gardner's On Moral Fiction) of an astonishing array of soreheaded-nesses: there are flailing complaints against Wittgenstein, most music, Marxism, Ronald Reagan, industrial polluters, even college kids who don't smoke (). And Mickelsson is such a pathetic wreck that, despite the tremendous amount of water that's tread, there is something compelling here, mostly with his atmospheres: superb landscape pictures of the Southern Tier geography, biting fun made at faculty pretensions in the arts, and deft appearances of Mickelsson's troubles in the metaphorical guise of dogs (no doubt the dogs of Hell). Still, finally, despite its flickering power in engaging us with such a rattletrap character in extremis, this book is more unwieldy than anything else--like mountains and mountains of loose black coal, shifting and sliding but burning no fire and making no light. And Gardner's Tolstoyan intention--massive malediction and benediction at the same time--is gagged by ludicrousness, fatigue, by a plenary sloppiness that even the fiercest pain or philosophy or ghost can't scare into shape. In all: a fascinating, oddly depressing failure.
Pub Date: June 1st, 1982
ISBN: 0811216799
Page count: 612pp
Publisher: Knopf
Review Posted Online:
Kirkus Reviews Issue: June 1st, 1982


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