ON TOP OF SPOON MOUNTAIN
BY JOHN NICHOLS
(University of New Mexico Press)
It would be tempting to classify longtime Taos author John Nichols’s latest novel as a slight bit of skillfully drawn, late-middle-age tomfoolery. But then, potential readers who dismiss the book from their reading lists would miss the dense, bittersweet layering of regret and redemption that makes On Top of Spoon Mountain a fitting capstone to a singular literary career inseparable from its northern New Mexico origins.
Opening with a declaration—only hours after an ER visit spurred by his ailing heart—that he intends to climb his beloved Spoon Mountain on his 65th birthday, narrator-protagonist Jonathan Kepler sets the stage for a classic family joust. His children, their families, and his current girlfriend are all well aware of his physical limitations. Heart disease, asthma, and multiple medications rule Kepler’s days, but his stubborn refusal to acknowledge them drives the novel to unexpected heights.
A New Mexico–based writer of literary fiction, essays, and screenplays not unlike Nichols himself, Jonathan Kepler is in the wane of his career. He readily acknowledges—and just as handily dismisses—what he knows to be true: He’s failed as a husband (three times), large sums of money have trickled through his fingers, his health is failing fast, and he’s fixated on a last-chance opportunity to reconnect with his two adult children in a wilderness he knows intimately.
Hilarity ensues, as they say, thanks to Nichols’s taut expertise with the one-liner, the zinger, the all-too-true punch line. But comedy is not his true métier; laughing to hide his tears, Nichols is as earnest as ever in his defense of the natural world and his excoriation of humanity’s blundering destructiveness.
It’s hard not to imagine Spoon Mountain as a thinly disguised autobiographical offering from the author of, most famously, The Milagro Beanfield War. While Nichols himself may or may not have been present as a character in his first offering, The Sterile Cuckoo, much of his fiction draws heavily on his experience and awareness of his adopted home.
Jonathan Kepler’s encounter with a stubborn bear, his patient attempts at communication with ravens, and his overwhelming love for his precocious granddaughter all show off some of Nichols’s finest writing. It may be twilight in hapless Jonathan Kepler’s career, but John Nichols shows every sign of milking those late afternoon raysof sunshine for as long as possible.
Candelora Versace is an award-winning writer who has been freelancing in Santa Fe since 1991.