Nichols, John 1940–
Nichols, John 1940–
(John Treadwell Nichols)
Born July 23, 1940, in Berkeley, CA; son of David G. (a psycho-linguist) and Monique Nichols; married Ruth Wetherell Harding, 1965 (divorced); mar- ried Juanita Laurene Kusters, 1985 (divorced); married Miel Athena Castagna, 1994 (divorced); children: (first marriage) Luke, Tania. Education: Hamilton College, B.A., 1962.
Home and office—Taos, NM.
Writer, photographer, and screenwriter. Has worked as a blues singer in a Greenwich Village cafe, a firefighter in the Chiricahua Mountains of Arizona, and a dishwasher in Hartford, CT; partner and artist in "Jest-No" greeting card business, 1962; English teacher in Barcelona, Spain, for three months. Visiting professor, University of New Mexico, 1992, 1993.
New Mexico Governor's Award, 1981; Frank Writers Award and Wallace Stegner Award, both 2003. Honorary degrees from Colorado College, Hamilton College, and University of New Mexico. Quality Paperback Book Club selection for A Ghost in the Music and The Magic Journey.
If Mountains Die (nonfiction), photographs by William Davis, Alfred A. Knopf (New York, NY), 1979.
(And photographer) The Last Beautiful Days of Autumn: A Memoir (nonfiction photo essay), Holt, Rinehart, & Winston (New York, NY), 1982.
(With Edward Abbey) In Praise of Mountain Lions, Albuquerque Sierra Club (Albuquerque, NM), 1984.
On the Mesa, Peregrine Smith (Salt Lake City, UT), 1986.
A Fragile Beauty: John Nichols' Milagro Country, Peregrine Smith (Salt Lake City, UT), 1987.
(And photographer) The Sky's the Limit: A Defense of the Earth, W.W. Norton (New York, NY), 1990.
(And photographer) Keep It Simple: A Defense of the Earth, W.W. Norton (New York, NY), 1992.
Dancing on the Stones: Selected Essays, University of New Mexico Press (Albuquerque, NM), 2000.
An American Child Supreme: The Education of a Liberation Ecologist, Milkweed Editions (Minneapolis, MN), 2001.
The Sterile Cuckoo, McKay (New York, NY), 1965.
The Wizard of Loneliness, Putnam (New York, NY), 1966.
A Ghost in the Music, Holt, Rinehart, & Wilson (New York, NY), 1979.
American Blood, Holt (New York, NY), 1987.
An Elegy for September, Holt (New York, NY), 1992.
Conjugal Bliss: A Comedy of Marital Arts, Holt (New York, NY), 1994.
The Voice of the Butterfly, Chronicle Books (San Francisco, CA), 2001.
The Empanada Brotherhood, Chronicle Books (San Francisco, CA), 2007.
"NEW MEXICO TRILOGY"; NOVELS
The Milagro Beanfield War, illustrated by Rini Templeton, Holt Rinehart, & Winston (New York, NY), 1974, anniversary edition, 1994.
(And illustrator) The Magic Journey, Holt, Rinehart, & Winston (New York, NY), 1978.
The Nirvana Blues, Holt, Rinehart, & Winston (New York, NY), 1981, reprinted, 1999.
Sound recordings by the author include The Milagro Beanfield War, released by Newman Books-on-Cassette (Albuquerque, NM) in 1986; Landscapes of a Magic Valley, released by Audio Press (Louisville, CO), 1988; Readings, selections from Magic Journey, released by American Audio Prose Library (Columbia, MO), 1982; Interview, released by American Audio Prose Library (Columbia, MO), 1982. Also contributor of essays and short stories to periodicals.
The Sterile Cuckoo, directed by Alan J. Pakula and starring Liza Minnelli, was released by Paramount in 1969; The Milagro Beanfield War, directed by Robert Redford, was released in 1988; The Wizard of Loneliness, directed by Jenny Bowen, was released in 1988.
Best known for his "New Mexico Trilogy," John Nichols is a novelist, photographer, screenwriter, and environmental nonfiction writer. He was the winner of a 1981 New Mexico Governor's Award and the 2003 Frank Writers Award. Nichols's works are noted for their social and environmental concerns, particularly the cultural conflict between Anglos and Chicanos in New Mexico, social violence, the destruction of natural resources, and economic imbalance. His books are marked by colorful characters and familiar locales, and they not only deal with larger social issues but also focus on the more intimate issues of family and love.
One of Nichols's most highly regarded novels is his first, The Sterile Cuckoo. The novel's narrator, Jerry, offers an account of his sophomore year in college, during which time he learned little of academic value, but much of collegiate love. "Square at first sight for its evocation, through half-amused, half-boastful reminiscence, of frat-house drinking revels … at second glance, Nichols's book takes on a deeper dimension," Albert Goldman remarked in the Nation. "With astuteness and unfailing intuition, the young author has placed at the heart of his college recollections an absolutely unique yet broadly representative character named Pookie Adams. A comedienne, who has adopted the new humor as her personal life style, Pookie is the type of today's funny little old college girl." And, although Jerry is the narrator, this is Pookie's story. "Although Pookie often appears a fragile, childlike moppet encased in a gauzy pink cocoon of Disneyland fantasy … her actions and daydreams suggest pathological hatred," observed Goldman. The reviewer continued, "Spunky as her efforts are to exorcise fear with farce, their ultimate effect is to make her a ‘sterile cuckoo,’ cut off from life by the comic persona she originally adopted to protect her deeply damaged personality."
Granville Hicks valued The Sterile Cuckoo "the best of many novels I have recently read about sex and the younger generation. For one thing," he wrote in Saturday Review, "it presented a heroine who was both attractive and credible and for the most part unstereotyped. For another, I was impressed by the skill with which the author let the narrator expose himself as a heel." Other reviewers criticized the novel for a lack of realism and for being out of touch with its turbulent times. Richard A. Blessing addressed this issue in an article for the Journal of Popular Culture. "Critics of both the novel and the movie have scoffed at its lack of ‘realism.’ … A more discerning reading will show that the nightmare of violence in the atomic age is so pervasive in The Sterile Cuckoo that there is scarcely a page on which it is not present." He added: "Let me suggest that Pookie and her friends are as aware of the horror of modern life as are their more recent counterparts at Columbia or Berkeley, but that their response to that horror is different, is more grotesque because the horror is more real and more grotesque to them." Blessing concluded: "Nichols has produced, I think, an important contribution to the popular literature of the '60s."
Nichols's "New Mexico Trilogy" (The Milagro Beanfield War, The Magic Journey, and The Nirvana Blues) traces the four-decade transformation of a small New Mexico town from a quiet, traditional society to its modern, commercial lifestyle. In the trilogy, Nichols is concerned with the destruction of traditional communities and cultures in the name of progress and, in particular, with the economic system that fosters such destruction.
"At the beginning of the trilogy," John McLellan wrote in the Washington Post, "New Mexico was still a relatively unspoiled land, the possession of Indians and Mexicans who lived off the land. It was ripe for spoiling, and the story of that spoiling is a major concern of the trilogy." As Jeffrey Burke of Harper's explained the story: "Speculators, developers, politicians—the usual crowd of cashers-in—have weaned the locals away from a land-based economy to the almighty greenback and introduced them to the marvels of installment plans, menial labor, and debt. By the time the older Pueblo get around to actively protesting, they've lost their children, their culture, [and] their farms to the maw of redblooded, white-skinned capitalism."
In the face of this onslaught by Anglos and their social and economic imperatives, a small act of resistance ignites a clash of cultures. This is the story of The Milagro Beanfield War. Hispanic Joe Mondragón, a jack-of-all-trades, decides to tap into an irrigation canal so that he can raise some beans on a plot of his family's land. The only problem is that water is like gold in the West and this water belongs to the forces of Anglo progress. "The beanfield becomes a symbol of the plight of the Chicano in New Mexico—lost water rights, lost lands, and exploitation at the hands of outsiders," wrote Carl R. Shirley in the Dictionary of Literary Biography Yearbook. In highlighting this plight, "Nichols draws upon the possibilities inherent in the genre to write a social novel different from most other socially oriented American novels," John E. Loftis maintained in the Rocky Mountain Review of Language and Literature. "The central conflict in this novel is between two cultures, two ways of life, two views of reality: the Anglo and the Chicano."
To capture the conflict that swirls around the beanfield, Nichols "creates an original blend of myth and reality in his fictive world," noted Shirley. "The floodgates of the author's imagination are also opened," Shirley added, "and the reader witnesses a phantasmagoria of colorful characters." The result is a novel that suggests to some reviewers a mix of John Steinbeck, William Faulkner, and Gabriel García Márquez. For National Observer reviewer Larry L. King, however, The Milagro Beanfield War "is a big, gassy, convoluted book that adds up to a disappointment—one somehow failing to equal the sum of its many parts." Frederick Busch, writing in the New York Times Book Review, found fault with Nichols's many colorful characters: "The characters, first of all, are stereotypes…. They don't exist in and of themselves, and they don't act because of inner necessity…. They seem instead to act for the sake of yet another amusing tale told by a decent, charming fellow-drinker during an afternoon in a quiet bar."
Loftis, in his review, took account of criticism like that offered by Busch. He commented: "Busch makes several astute observations, but because of the ways in which he applies these observations to the novel, he condemns it for what seem to me wrong reasons." As he pointed out, "wars, after all, are fought between social groups, not individuals, and Nichols chooses not to focus on an individual protagonist whose personality, values, and consciousness usually provide coherence and continuity to a novel." Instead, continued the critic, "the two cultures, Chicano and Anglo, and the values they represent are the protagonist and antagonist in The Milagro Beanfield War; they are forces too powerful to be controlled, too intertwined to be separated into clearly defined and formulated principles, and too random and haphazard in events to be represented by any one character." Loftis concluded: "Nichols's concerns as novelist are primarily social, and he has created an unusual kind of protagonist, and thus novel, to give artistic form to these concerns."
In The Magic Journey, the second novel of the trilogy, Nichols again explores the effect of progress on a small Chicano community, Chamisaville. The progress begins with a bang, transforming the sleepy town into a tangled mass of tourist traps. A school bus under repair explodes. The site soon yields hot springs. A shrine is set up to the Dynamite Virgin. Tourists come, and spas, hotels, restaurants, and shops spring up to attend to their needs. As with his previous New Mexico novel, Nichols weaves together many elements, making The Magic Journey "a plausible history of exploitation, lush with eccentric characters, with myths, legends, ghosts, and revealing shards from the past four decades, all carried by a Dickensian narrative exuberance," Jeffrey Burke wrote in Harper's. Jonathan Yardley, writing for the New York Times Book Review, found that this "tale of how progress comes to the little Southwestern settlement of Chamisaville—transforming it into the ‘playground of the Land of Enchantment’ and displacing its true owners in the name of profit—is consistently diverting and occasionally amusing."
According to Burke, Nichols, in mixing humor into this social novel, goes too far, losing the delicate balance necessary for good satire. "Nichols's creative energy runs so often to comic invention, to caricature instead of character … that he entertains far more than he instructs," Burke wrote. "The imbalance makes for ambivalence." Shirley saw greater balance in Nichols's storytelling, finding connections between this story and the culture from which it emerges. "The Magic Journey's characters are more in the tradition of Latin America than of the United States," Shirley noted. "In Spanish-speaking countries, personal eccentricity is the norm rather than a deviation; unusual characters or even living caricatures are much more likely to be encountered, not only in literature but also on the streets. Nichols manifests a high degree of understanding of the people about whom he is writing and whose standard he has chosen to carry." In his own way, Nichols hopes to remind readers, in the words he quoted from President Woodrow Wilson, that "we are all caught in a great economic system which is heartless." As Bruce Cook, writing in the Washington Post, wrote, "Nichols proposes to change that system."
In The Nirvana Blues, third in the trilogy, an Anglo garbage man plans a drug deal to earn enough money to buy his own piece of New Mexico from the last Chicano in town. In this way, Nichols "practically shuts the door on any hope he has for the survival of Chicano culture and traditional lifestyle," observed Shirley. Here, as with the previous two novels, "some of the many comic episodes are truly hilarious," Shirley noted, "but again, as in The Milagro Beanfield War and The Magic Journey, there is an underlying feeling of sadness and despair at the uncontrollable and inevitable circumstances that lead to the death of Eloy [the last Chicano] and his way of life. Nichols is laughing through his tears and causing his readers to do the same." For Lynn Z. Bloom, writing in Western American Literature, "Nichols's cautionary tale makes us yearn for heroes, saviors of the land, preservers of stability, natural beauty, integrity of human relationships." Norbert Blei of the Chicago Tribune Book World concluded his evaluation of the "New Mexico Trilogy" with high praise. "It will be," he stated, "one of the most significant contributions to American literature in some time…. Nichols has left us with a classic American trilogy."
Published in 1987, American Blood is Nichols's investigation of the consequences of the Vietnam War on the American consciousness. Michael P. Smith, a product of and participant in the war's brutal killing fields, finds himself emotionally adrift after the atrocities in which he has participated. He is caught in an on-again, off-again relationship with one of his former platoon members, Tom Carp, who summons him out to New Mexico. There Smith meets Janine Tarr, an older waitress with a teenaged daughter named Cathie. Janine introduces Smith to the process of healing. Together they form a small family, but their nascent peace is ripped apart when Cathie is violently raped and murdered. "It is only in the remains of this fool's paradise," wrote Washington Post Book World contributor Kathleen Hirsch, "that the lovers can begin to struggle toward a more authentic framework for survival." "American Blood is Nichols's most difficult book to date," stated Paul Pintarich in the Oregonian, "filled as it is with violence, evil and a vicious reality that many will interpret as pornography. Readers who endure to the end, however, will find the treatment acceptable." The novel "is a profoundly disturbing book," Ray Mungo concluded in the San Francisco Examiner-Chronicle. "Nichols has chosen to mute his engaging sense of humor in favor of the direct hit to the veins…. American Blood is a painful book to read, yet it leaves us with wisdom and hope."
Nichols returns to the subjects of sex and marriage in An Elegy for September and Conjugal Bliss: A Comedy of Marital Arts. In the former volume an aging writer with a heart problem, in the process of ending his second marriage, begins a relationship by letter with a younger woman. It culminates in an affair lasting a couple of weeks. "From these slight materials, Nichols has constructed a novella," wrote Charles Bowden in the Los Angeles Times Book Review, "and in a career studded with wonders, it is one of the finest things he has ever written." In the latter book, Nichols charts the destruction of a marriage in a series of anecdotes and pastiches. "Conjugal Bliss is a larger-than-life anti-romance, antic and full of low-jinks," explained Los Angeles Times Book Review contributor Ron Carlson; "imagine Othello by the writers of I Love Lucy."
Critics have admired the versatility of Nichols's prose. John McLellan noted Nichols's "virtuoso style, the profusion of strange but believable characters, the skill with which small incidents are developed and the curious blend of humor and pathos, which are often found fighting for supremacy in a single phrase." Nichols "has all of Steinbeck's gifts," Norbert Blei stated in Tribune Books: "the same overwhelming compassion for people, plus an even finer sense of humor, and the need to celebrate the cause and dignity of man." Blei added: "There used to be writers that cared about people. Proletarian writers they were called…. Nichols, now, seems almost alone upon this inherited terrain." Blei contended that Nichols's work "reminds us of the love and laughter, the courage it takes to be honest, caring human beings in an age when greed and self-fulfillment seem synonymous." Nichols once told CA: "I am a great believer in humor as a weapon and feel that while some of my work may be polemical, it's important that it is also funny and entertaining, and above all compassionate."
Nichols also explained to CA his motivations for writing and how they underwent a change beginning with his third novel: "Basically, my life, my literary focus, my ambitions, changed radically during the mid-1960s when I was active in the anti-Vietnam War movement. I came to view the world, and how it functions, from a mostly Marxist perspective, and most of what I've written since 1966 reflects this perspective. During the 1960s and early 1970s I wrote nearly a dozen novels, motivated by this new point of view, none of which saw the light of publishing day. Yet eventually I began to learn how to create an art that is both polemical and entertaining, and have managed in the past five years to guide a handful of new books into print.
"I am strongly committed, in my life and in my work, to bringing about changes in the nature of our society which I believe absolutely necessary to the well-being of us all. I'm tired of our destruction of human, spiritual, and natural resources, particularly among minorities and working-class and third-world peoples—both in our country and abroad. I hope someday to see a more equal distribution of wealth and opportunity in our nation and around the world, and an end to American imperialism. I have a great faith in the energy of our people, in the vitality of our myriad cultures. I have a tendency to believe that the survival or the destruction of our planet is in the hands of the United States. That makes our nation one of the scariest and most exciting countries on Earth. I just wish that more of our artists and writers would accept social responsibility as an integral part of their credos, instead of wallowing in the cynical, self-centered nihilism that characterizes too much of what is popular and successful nowadays."
In a Publishers Weekly review of The Voice of the Butterfly, the critic commented on the strong satirical tone of the book, calling it a "completely over-the-top send-up of the mindless ambitions of our shallow, materialistic, upwardly mobile modern-day society." Amy H. Taylor reviewed the novel and conducted an interview of the author for the Boulder Weekly Web site. She described The Voice of the Butterfly as a "raucous, wild story of a ragtag bunch of activists on a crusade to save an endangered butterfly from a highway bypass." The Butterfly Coalition, a bunch of local misfits, is led by an aging hippy joined by his alcoholic, drug-using ex-wife, their would-be punk rocker son who works at a fast-food burger joint, and a ninety-or-so-year-old chain-smoking woman who owns the last refuge of the endangered insect. During the Boulder Weekly Web site interview, Nichols commented: "I always hope that you can get political messages across through entertainment and humor … and that the body of the work as a whole will encourage people to be hopeful, to sustain themselves with a sense of humor and not to mourn but to organize. What were Joe Hill's famous last words before they shot him, the labor organizer? ‘Don't mourn for me boys, organize.’ And that's what I hope the literature will ultimately do."
In The Empanada Brotherhood, Nichols tries a new setting, abandoning the western landscape for 1960s Greenwich Village in New York City. The book features a young man from California, a virgin, fresh out of college, who has moved to New York determined to become a writer. He is shy, working as a dishwasher to pay the bills, working hard on his novels between times. He is nicknamed "blondie," the appellation coming from a group of Argentines he knows from hanging around the nearby empanada stand run by Aureo Roldan. They are struggling as he is, and it is enough for them to strike up a friendship. However, when Blondie spies a young flamenco dancer named Cathy Escudero, who is absorbed in duende, a sort of force of creation that takes over the spirit in the midst of performance, he becomes obsessed. Meanwhile, Roldan serves his empanadas and attempts to avoid Mob entanglements, and the Argentines share their own assorted stories and mysteries. The book received lukewarm reviews from a number of critics, who felt it was flat compared to some of Nichols's earlier work. A contributor for Kirkus Reviews remarked that "the human energy swirling around the empanada stand is full of sound and fury but signifies very little." Others, however, found it an interesting departure for Nichols. Donna Seaman, reviewing for Booklist, dubbed the book a "cleverly choreographed tragicomedy."
Nichols told CA: "I started writing when I was nine or ten. A great influence in me and my style were the New York gangster stories of Damon Runyon: I loved them with all their wise guy shtarker slag! I still love them.
"Writing has been a wonderful way to pass my time on Earth. And I even got paid for it!"
BIOGRAPHICAL AND CRITICAL SOURCES:
Contemporary Authors Autobiography Series, Volume 2, Gale (Detroit, MI), 1985.
Contemporary Literary Criticism, Volume 38, Gale (Detroit, MI), 1986.
Dictionary of Literary Biography Yearbook: 1982, Gale (Detroit, MI), 1983.
Twentieth-Century Western Writers, 2nd edition, St. James Press (Detroit, MI), 1991.
Wild, Peter, John Nichols, Boise State University (Boise, ID), 1986.
Anniston Star (Anniston, AL), May 31, 1987, Barbara Hodge Hall, "American Blood Not for Faint of Heart."
Arizona Daily Star, May 31, 1987, Dan Huff, "American Blood Is a Brutal War Story That Sticks Like the Most Horrible Dream."
Bloomsbury Review, May-June, 2000, James R. Hepworth, review of Dancing on the Stones: Selected Essays.
Booklist, May 1, 1992, review of An Elegy for September, p. 1563; April 1, 2001, Kristine Huntley, review of The Voice of the Butterfly, p. 1429; October 1, 2007, Donna Seaman, review of The Empanada Brotherhood, p. 29.
Chicago Tribune, April 19, 1987, David Guy, "After 'Nam," pp. 3, 9.
Chronicle Books, June 21-28, 2001, A.D. Amorosi, review of The Voice of the Butterfly.
Denver Post, May 3, 1987, Tom Clark, "Scary Skeleton of Vietnam."
Environment, March, 1999, review of The Milagro Beanfield War, p. 9.
Harper's, April, 1965, review of The Sterile Cuckoo; March, 1966, review of The Wizard of Loneliness; August, 1978, Jeffrey Burke, review of The Magic Journey, p. 89.
Journal of Popular Culture, summer, 1973, Richard Blessing, review of The Sterile Cuckoo.
Kirkus Reviews, April 1, 2001, review of The Voice of the Butterfly, p. 448; September 15, 2007, review of The Empanada Brotherhood.
Los Angeles Times Book Review, June 28, 1992, Charles Bowden, "Not Just Another Pastel Coyote," pp. 2, 8; April 24, 1994, Ron Carlson, "Love in the Trenches," p. 12.
Nation, February 8, 1965, Albert Goldman, review of The Sterile Cuckoo, p. 142.
National Observer, November 16, 1974, Larry L. King, review of The Milagro Beanfield War.
New Mexican (Santa Fe, NM), May 14, 2000, Antonio Lopez, "Essays of an Adopted Son."
New York Times Book Review, October 27, 1974, Frederick Busch, review of The Milagro Beanfield War, p. 53; April 16, 1978, Jonathan Yardley, review of The Magic Journey, p. 15.
Oregonian, June 7, 1987, Paul Pintarich, "A Postwar Horror Story," p. 24.
Publishers Weekly, December 13, 1993, review of Conjugal Bliss: A Comedy of Marital Arts, p. 62; June 4, 2001, review of The Voice of the Butterfly, p. 55.
Rocky Mountain Review of Language and Literature, Volume 38, number 4, 1984, John E. Loftis, review of the "New Mexico Trilogy," p. 201.
St. Petersburg Times, June 21, 1987, J.A.C. Dunn, "A Smoldering Anger."
San Francisco Chronicle, July 9-15, 2000, Sherry Simpson, "The Writer's Life Knows No Limits."
San Francisco Examiner-Chronicle, April 19, 1987, Ray Mungo, "Terrible Price of War."
Saturday Review, January 30, 1965, Granville Hicks, review of The Sterile Cuckoo, p. 26.
Tribune Books (Chicago, IL), August 16, 1981, Norbert Blei, review of The Nirvana Blues; February 27, 1994, Bryce Milligan, "Welcome to ‘A Marriage from Hell.’"
Washington Post, June 17, 1978, John McLellan review of The Magic Journey; August 28, 1981, Bruce Cook, review of The Nirvana Blues.
Washington Post Book World, May 11, 1987, Kathleen Hirsch, "A Viet Vet's Unceasing Battle"; July 17, 1992, Ann Hood, "The 30-Day Romance," p. C2.
Weekly Alibi (Albuquerque, NM), June 22-28, 2000, Steven Robert Allen, "Keeping It Simple," pp. 33, 35.
Western American Literature, winter, 1982-83, Lynn Z. Bloom, review of The Nirvana Blues, p. 372.
Boulder Weekly,http://www.boulderweekly.com/ (January 28, 2002), Amy H. Taylor, "The Voice of John Nichols," interview with the author of The Voice of the Butterfly.