John Nichols' 12th novel, On Top of Spoon Mountain, is a raucous, fast-paced and comical consideration of nature, aging and family—and how one can fail at all three.
In Jonathan Kepler, Nichols creates an often-hilarious caricature of an aging radical/artist who forsakes his children for the lure of semi-fame, booze and fast women, only to seek a return to his familial Eden as his mortality seems more and more apparent.
The novel begins with the approach of Kepler's 65th birthday, on which he's determined to climb the daunting Spoon Mountain, a near-13,000-foot peak, with his children, Ben and Miranda, like they used to in the old days—back when Kepler feels he was still a decent parent. This desire to climb Spoon Mountain comes on the heels of yet another trip to the emergency room as a result of one of Kepler's many ailments, which are described often throughout the book. Everyone in his life is opposed to this insane idea of climbing the mountain: his kids, his friends and his girlfriend. Yet Kepler, famous for his stubbornness, is determined to proceed with the hike. As the date approaches, and more karmic mishaps befall him, Kepler's steadfastness and his confidence in his ability to make the hike and mend his family ties are tested in a variety of ways.
One of the things that make Nichols' books fun to read is his take on human relationships. As with his other novels, On Top of Spoon Mountain is at its heart about people and how they interact with one another, both positively and negatively. Though setting, especially Spoon Mountain, is given ample description and time in the novel, the funniest, most-honest and most-touching parts of the book are when Nichols' singular characters interact with one another. Throughout the novel, Kepler has verbal run-ins with pretty much every other character, but instead of being repetitive, each interaction is given its own specific pitch. The relationship between Kepler and his beloved granddaughter Lizzy, for example, is sweet and realistic without being saccharine:
My granddaughter Lizzy and I talk on the telephone. We are BFFs. ... One of our rituals is we converse in Raven with each other. I've decided to teach her the lingo. ... Ravens communicate with each other using a wide array of croaks, mutters, knocks, trills, chortles, quorks and gurgles. ... I took Lizzy over to Bob's Diner so we could observe ravens feeding at the Dumpsters behind the restaurant. ... We've been talking Raven with each other on the phone ever since.
The tenderness of this relationship is put into relief, though, by Kepler's relationships with his daughter and son. The over-the-top nature of Kepler's character is drawn sharply throughout the novel. He is stubborn and selfish; as he himself admits, he basically ignored his kids during their formative years. He is constantly pushing their buttons, so it's no surprise when Miranda blows up at him at his birthday party:
"My dad is a fool," Miranda said. "He's a joke. I'm sick of all his self-righteous treacle and his lugubrious self-annihilations complex for the last 30 years. Where was he when we needed him? ... We made a promise to each other? Spare me. This isn't 20 years ago, and I'm not a little girl anymore."
By this point, the reader feels as strongly about Kepler as Miranda does. And despite his strained, yet still loving, relationship with his children, the more-tender nature of his relationship with his granddaughter can be seen as a way for him to make up for his earlier failures as a father. It's this gradual discovery of character, rather than simple exposition and description of character, at which Nichols succeeds.
Where the novel stumbles is in its moments of repetition. How many times does the reader need a description of Ben's caution and quietness? Or daughter Miranda's smart-aleck nature? Yet these descriptions appear over and over again and slow down the narrative with their redundancy.
The ending is also a letdown. After the delightful messiness and disorder of the rest of the novel, it wraps up too quickly and cleanly to feel real or earned. Yet even if the ending is not totally satisfying, the journey there, while we get to know the characters, is time well-spent.