John Nichols and his 19th miracle
by Erin Halcomb
NAME: John Nichols
VOCATION: Author of 19 books offiction and nonfiction, including The Milagro Beanfield War, The Sterile Cuckoo, Conjugal Bliss, The Voice of the Butterfly and If Mountains Die.
Thoughts on Death and THE Afterlife “You just die. It’s over, Rover.”
Advice: “Part of surviving is not to stress yourself out and make your life miserable.”
Favorite fishing spot: Far below the Rio Grande Gorge bridge. He wears a helmet to protect himself from objects dropped from the bridge.
“Caw. Caw. Cawww!” The throaty, discordant squawk comes from a tall man, not a raven, although there are plenty of ravens in this Taos parking lot. The man’s face is pale, creased from decades of too much sun and too much smiling. Dressed in layers of button-down shirts, he runs long fingers through gray-streaked hair and pats it down with his palm. The ravens eye him curiously and chatter as he ambles over to a boxy little 1993 Dodge Shadow. He winces as he drops into the driver’s seat, the cortisone shot he just received in his hip still niggling. The New Mexican sun has roasted the car’s interior, where a dusty dashboard shelves a stack of mail: The New Yorker, information on a pension plan, an envelope scrawled with “To John Nichols (the writer) c/o Taos Post Office.”
Nichols, best known for his 1974 novel The Milagro Beanfield War, slips large tortoise-shell glasses over blue eyes and motors down the alley. He passes a dumpster and shouts out the window: “Caw! Caw!” He loves ravens, magpies and jays for their intelligence, adaptability, and monkey-like behavior. Maybe he also likes them because, like him, they are gleeful thorns in the side of a more refined society.
This fall, Nichols will publish his 19th book, The Empanada Brotherhood, which he describes as “a strange little book about a bunch of yahoos in New York City.” Aside from his fiction and nonfiction writing, Nichols is noted for his activism (last year, a Denver newspaper columnist compared his rhetoric to Lenin’s), his nostalgic vision of New Mexican culture and his Rabelaisian charm. Nearing 67, and with a weakened heart, Nichols still keeps his maverick edge. He wants to converse with Canadian jays, write about his mom and pop, go for long hikes, get laid, and eat good food, just like always. But the 20-hour writing frenzies are no more, and nature and family now occupy more of his time. Used to be, he’d spend the midnight hours weaving the gossip he’d collected into a story — “Gossip,” he says, “is a great way to get a novel.” These days, he’s more likely to read books about ants, or note down a few observations from his daily hike.
That doesn’t mean he ignores gossip when it comes his way. As he gallivants around Taos, he banters with Gail at the bank and Wendell the mechanic, not to mention his friends the dumpster-diving ravens. Waitresses pause as they serve him a breakfast of sausage and eggs, or dinner of calamari, and describe how things are going with their now-grownup daughters. When Nichols hears an Irish jig floating from a nearby motel courtyard, he strides over, his thin, chapped lips arcing into a wide grin, and compliments the fiddler and guitarist. The traveling musicians from Maryland offer him the small guitar, and after a bit of encouragement, Nichols strums an old folk tune: “I’ll get mine,” he sings.
Back in the Shadow, with its cracked windshield and cluttered backseat, Nichols navigates winding alleyways. He pulls into a labyrinth of storage lockers and parks, shedding a layer and pulling himself out of the car. He slides open a large metal door, revealing box upon box of paper, some yellowing and brittle, some still white and fresh. It’s the detritus of 40 years of writing: Unpublished manuscripts, drafts of screenplays, the typewriter on which he punched out the Milagro Beanfield War.
“It’s been one bad book after another,” says Nichols of his career, which officially began with the publication of The Sterile Cuckoo, when he was 23. After that success, he thought writing would just get easier and easier. “But it’s the opposite,” he says. “It’s hard to write something that has value, that works, that’s not a piece of shit … for me, it’s a frickin’ miracle to get anything published.” The Milagro Beanfield War was different; it was the easiest and sloppiest book he’s ever written, he says. If he had had the chance to exercise his penchant for endless rewriting, he’d have cut the gratuitous obscenities, and more than two-thirds of the Ay Chihuahuas, he says. But he has no real regrets. He’s always maintained his integrity, refusing to take any money up front, and he’s still creating fiction for a living, just like he always wanted.
After locking up the storage unit, Nichols wends his way out of town for one of his favorite hikes — a short uphill climb that shouldn’t overly aggravate the hernia he popped in January, or the meniscus torn in his knee in March. Though he’s hiked this trail more times than he can remember, he discovers something new each time, an early-blooming flower, perhaps, or an iridescent velvet ant. At the top, he peers through binoculars — sousing the eyepieces in sweat — and points out his beloved snow-packed peaks. Then he snarls down at the valley pocked with houses. “The utter disaster of the human species is evident everywhere,” he says. “Just because you live in a cute town in the West doesn’t mean the same things that are happening in Bombay or Calcutta aren’t happening here. This town is fucked.”
Regardless of Nichols’ forebodings about the future, he’s not leaving Taos anytime soon. His roots are firmly planted here, in a small adobe on a rambling road on the fringe of town. Out back, red socks, knitted by a girlfriend back in the ’50s, dangle listlessly from the clothesline. Apple trees grow between two wooden sheds. One holds his vast collection of books, and has mounted on it a nest box his father built, specifically designed for starlings — a superabundant species that aggressively evicts bluebirds, wrens and woodpeckers from their nests. But that doesn’t bother Nichols, who says, “Once you start picking and choosing which species you like and dislike, you start to create holes in the web of life.” This love for nature, even nature gone awry, comes from his paternal side: His grandfather, an avid birder, was a curator of fishes at the American Museum of Natural History in New York, and his father liked to record the cacophony of crows as they mobbed a stuffed owl.
Across the yard, Nichols opens the door of another shed, where a series of metal file cabinets sit silently, cloaked in cobwebs. They hold tax returns, photos and correspondence — with his ex-wives, with Edward Abbey and with the fans he’s befriended. He pulls out a piece of paper, scrawled with a child’s handwriting and crayon sketches; he wrote it at age 11 to his grandmother, thanking her for a rooster and signing it “Happy Johnny.” “Libraries love this shit,” he says.
Nichols’ dirt-roofed adobe house holds even more files. An autographed poster of Wayne Gretzky dangles from one wall. Plastic chairs surround tables towering with books. A bare lightbulb hangs from the ceiling of his living room. “I suppose I could have lived a materialistic life,” he says, but he prefers otherwise. His bed is blanketed with sleeping bags, and Cookie, a skittish old cat, lurks somewhere underneath.
Cookie is currently the only companion sharing his bed regularly. “I was never very good at being married very long,” he says. But Nichols keeps in touch with his various exes. Ruth, his first wife, with whom he raised two children, is coming up this weekend for dinner. Juanita, his second, just sent him the Texas Observer’s special issue on Molly Ivins.
His most recent wife was Miel, a precocious 23-year-old flamenco dancer. “It was one of those things where everyone is against you from the start because they think it is ridiculous,” says Nichols. “And they’re right, it is. But that’s also what makes it an adventure.” When he suffered from endocarditis, a rare heart infection, in 1994, Miel became acutely aware of the gap in their ages. And although the couple enjoyed the surprising side effects of the heart medications on Nichols’ nether regions, they decided to part before Nichols died a lascivious death.
Death has been much on Nichols’ mind lately. He’s been reading 52 McGs, a collection of obituaries, and increasingly, he says, when the phone rings, it’s because a dear friend has died. He usually skips the funerals. “The attitude to fly 2,000 miles to go see your nephew, or go to a funeral for one day — that attitude is a major attack on the ecosystem,” he says. “The mobility of humans is the greatest criminal in greenhouse gas pollution.”
Before he can continue the tirade, the phone rings. “Yo-Yo,” Nichols answers. His son Luke wants to know if Nichols can pick up Lucinda after school. No problem, he says. An hour later, Lucinda, his 3-year-old granddaughter, plays with a stuffed polar bear as he straps her into the car seat. His hands are gentle, his voice softer, as he showers her with questions: Are you thirsty? Want some milk, sweetie? Want a Fig Newton? Want to go to the park? Nichols turns, grins, and says, “Now, I’m going to morph into a grandpa. I’m no longer a writer, or an opinionated asshole.”
The author recently finished an internship at HCN, and now writes from a lookout tower in southern Oregon.
This story was funded by a grant from the McCune Charitable Foundation.