Nichols' wit holds hard truths

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By Arin McKenna

Author John Nichols said once that he wanted to write “art with a social conscience.”
True to that calling, Nichols plunges fearlessly into difficult issues such as water rights, racial bias or–in the case of his most recent book, “On Top of Spoon Mountain”–man’s degradation of his environment with grace and wit that is an art form in and of itself.
Nichols has written 20 books, including “The Milagro Beanfield War,” “The Sterile Cuckoo,” and “The Wizard of Loneliness.” Nichols also wrote screenplays for all three (Robert Redford directed “The Milagro Beanfield War.”) He also wrote the screenplay for Constantinos Costa-Gravis’ “Missing,” which won an Oscar for Best Screenplay Adaptation.
At his best, Nichols does not hit his readers over the head with his message, but sprinkles it over healthy doses of laughter and spoon feeds it to his readers.
“I get tired of just gloom and doom speeches. I get tired of Armageddon stories, which I’ve written plenty of,” Nichols said, then lists off a few, including “The Magic Journey,” “Nirvana Blues” and “American Blood.”
It is that humorous attack on society’s ills that made “The Milagro Beanfield War” one of his most beloved novels.
Nichols takes the same approach in “Spoon Mountain.” His main character, Jonathan Kepler, is an out of shape writer with recurring bouts of atrial fibrillation and asthma who takes it into his head to reconnect with his two children, Ben and Miranda, by climbing 12,999 feet to the top of Spoon Mountain with them on his 65th birthday.
Miranda’s response, after a detailing his many infirmities, is to say, “I feel as if I’m listening to a quadriplegic inform me he’s planning to dance the lambada all night with Charo.”
Kepler also talks to ravens, dotes on his granddaughter Lizzy and watches insects in his garden as a means of “getting in shape” and psychically ready for his trek up the mountain.
Autobiographical elements abound in the novel. Nichols’ main character is an aging novelist and screenwriter who has been divorced three times whose best known book, “The Lucky Underdogs,” bears a striking resemblance to “The Milagro Beanfield Wars.”
Nichols is unapologetic about co-opting elements of his own experience.
“That saves me the problem of inventing a character who’s a nuclear physicist who wants to climb the mountain,” Nichols said. “I’d have to do an awful lot of work to make the nuclear physicist work. But, OK, he’s a writer, yada, yada, yada. I can write about that and give it some sort of credibility,” Nichols said. “You could accuse me of being horrendously lazy. Every book I’ve ever written people could say, ‘this is very autobiographical,’ whether it’s ‘The Sterile Cuckoo,’ or ‘The Wizard of Loneliness,’ or ‘The Milagro Beanfield War.’ I remember my brother calling me up after he read that and saying, ‘It’s so fun to read a book with 200 characters all of whom are you.’ And that’s fair.”
Just for the record, Nichols, who resides in Taos, is not the wreck his lead character is.
“I’ve never gotten out of shape. I’ve spent the last 44 years climbing mountains, going up and down the Rio Grande Gorge, running around the mesas, hunting grouse,” Nichols said. “I’ve always climbed the mountains, but when I was about 60 I just went nuts and climbed up to 13,000 feet twice a week and just moved all around. During the winter I snowshoed.”
Nichols uses the biographical elements as a diving board into the real story and the message he hopes to convey. He calls Jonathan Kepler an everyman whose attempts to reconnect to nature and his own children are microcosms for larger issues.
“There’s a metaphor behind the story, which is basically, we are destroying the biology that sustains us. We are destroying the planet we live on. We have completely lost our genetic bearings that were created during the Pleistocene 10,000 years ago when we were hunter gatherers and we understood the world we live in and functioned within it.
“And since that time, since the childhood of the species, we’ve managed to mutate. And in a way we’ve managed to mutate our instinct for survival so that everything we do today to live pretty much destroys the biology upon which we live, the biology that sustains us.
“So we need to go back to where we were. We need to re-educate ourselves about how to survive on this planet, how to survive with the natural world that sustains us. And if we don’t do that we’re just dead suckers."
That message is scattered throughout the novel almost like subliminal messages flashed across an advertisement. Even when Kepler loses all restraint and launches into a lengthy justification about how “Spoon Mountain is a symbol for all we forfeited agriculture changed the world…” he is yelling his sermon to the backside of a bear passing him on the mountain.
The novel is filled many laugh-out-loud as well as poignant moments. Following Kepler’s disaster-fraught attempts to reconnect to what matters and reclaim his place in nature is completely absorbing, while Nichols’ deeper message about how we all must reclaim those things leaves a lingering undercurrent for the reader to ponder.
Nichols will talk about the novel at 7 p.m. Thursday in the upstairs rotunda of Mesa Public Library.