An unlikely penitent: A review of On Top of Spoon Mountain

by Traci J. Macnamara

On Top of Spoon Mountain
John Nichols
232 pages, hardcover: $24.95.
University of New Mexico Press, 2012.

In a career that spans five decades, New Mexico author John Nichols has written more books and screenplays than he can count on his fingers and toes. His first novel, The Sterile Cuckoo, was published when he was 23, and The Milagro Beanfield War -- the first book in his New Mexico trilogy -- remains a classic of Southwestern literature. In his latest novel, On Top of Spoon Mountain, Nichols revisits the landscape he knows best: high desert plains and jagged peaks.

Protagonist Jonathan Kepler decides he wants to climb a 13,000-foot mountain on his 65th birthday. Never mind that he's only 48 hours out of the emergency room following a heart-attack scare or that he's got asthma. Or that he's also got a whole slew of other reasons to simply stay home. Kepler is determined to climb Spoon Mountain, and he's doing it in three weeks.

Kepler, a thrice-divorced curmudgeon, knows he hasn't been exactly a model father or husband, and his current relationship, with a real estate agent, is tenuous at best. He's on the waning edge of his writing career, and he envisions climbing Spoon Mountain with his two grown children, hoping to reconnect with them in a place they once enjoyed together. Perhaps the climb will somehow redeem his mistakes or restore and heal the time he's already wasted. The souls in Dante's Purgatorio shed their sins as they struggle up steep and rugged terrain. Why shouldn't Spoon Mountain do the same for Jonathan Kepler?

Spoon Mountain, however, is no holy ground. And Kepler, outspoken and proud, proves to be more of a self-absorbed jerk than a contrite soul seeking a better life. On Top of Spoon Mountain showcases its author's sensitivity to the natural world, but unfortunately, this novel's characters are as predictable as its ending. Some too-sensational moments, along with a protagonist who speaks in clich├ęs, also threaten the book's believability.

For those willing to abide such shortcomings, On Top of Spoon Mountain will provide an entertaining and humorous read. There is something compelling in the story of a man who is seeking to conquer a mountain -- and himself. Even though Kepler fails to conquer much of anything, his quest reveals that reaching a summit may be less important than the struggle to get there.

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