Mickelsson's Ghosts

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Mickelsson's Ghosts is John Gardner's final novel, published in 1982. It follows Peter Mickelsson, former football player and current Professor of Philosophy at Binghamton University. Mickelsson is driven, opinionated, probably a drunk, definitely bankrupt, and perhaps going completely mad. During his personal descent, which he seems powerless to arrest, he somehow scrounges enough money together to buy a farmhouse in northern Pennsylvania's Endless Mountains, which seems to be haunted by the ghosts of an incestuous family. During his more and more frequent absences from reality, the self-destructive Mickelsson has several affairs (including one with a young prostitute, and one with a fellow faculty member who unsuccessfully attempts to help him put his life together), inadvertently causes a death, and becomes involved with a sectarian religious group which may or may not be entirely imagined.

The ghosts of the title refer not just to individuals, but types. Although traditional ghost stories stick to one of three different kinds of ghosts, Gardner uniquely populates this novel with all three: real supernatural entities, "psychological" ghosts that originate in the imaginings of a character, and supernatural-seeming occurrences that have natural explanations. Although Mickelsson seems irredeemable, evident throughout is Gardner's characteristic love for or sympathy toward all of his characters, even the protagonist, whose final disposition remains ambiguous.