AT AGE TWENTY-FOUR, John Nichols saw his first novel, The Sterile Cuckoo, become a best seller and hit movie. Confronted by such early success, many authors fall into the arms of publishing and movie conglomerates promising eternal success in exchange for formula writing. Instead, Nichols chose to develop a unique style combining fantasy, realism and satire. His next three novels, The Wizard of Loneliness, The Milagro Beanfield War, and The Magic Journey, disappointed some literary critics while prompting others to compare parts of his work to that of such acclaimed writers as J. D. Salinger.
In this, his fifth novel, Nichols has dropped the fantasy, polished the eye-popping phrases ("glossy lipstick that glistened like nitroglycerine"), and returned to his roots with a skinny sarcastic heroine remarkably similar to Pookie Adams of Cuckoo fame.
A Ghost in the Music doesn't so much have a plot as a tightly coiled spring getting pressed tighter and tighter. New Yorker Marcel Thompson has been called to the wilds of New Mexico by his vagabond father, Bart, a combination Otto Preminger, Ernest Hemingway, Evel Knievel and Soren Kierkegaard. Bart plans to parachute into the wild Rio Grande gorge. Jagged rocks have already ripped apart a test dummy. It's just part of filming a B-movie, but chances are Bart will die.
The son's assignment is to hold the hand of Lorraine, his father's pregnant, hillbilly, cafe-singer girlfriend. Like her predecessor Pookie, Lorraine is more than able to hold her own in a man's world. But times have changed. Unsure whether she's had three or four abortions, Lorraine considers herself a prude.
Although the absence of action may dissatisfy many readers, Nichols is in good company -- Jerzy Kosinski and William Saroyan immediately come to mind -- in writing a novel with no plot. A Ghost in the Music is simply a Boswellian account of prejump and postjump days. Nichols seems to agree with an assertion once made by Kosinski that plot "dismisses the importance of life's each moment. Yet, that moment carries the essence of our life." Carrying this one step further, Nichols emphasizes that the very moment for which his book exists -- the parachute jump -- is not even dramatic.
"'Is that it?'" asks one member of the movie crew. "'A tiddlywinks match would have been more exciting,'" comments another.
Even Marcel, the loyal loving son, feels "the so-called danger some people face, placing the rest of us mere mortals in their debt and in awe of their audacity, is actually -- usually -- much safer than entering the corner bucket-of-blood for a beer." The jump leaves him breathless only because he realizes "that lives could be so seriously altered in such a matter-of-fact way."
Everything comes down to the jump, with everyone properly in place -- Bart the center of attention, Marcel and Lorraine waiting to applaud him or to sweep up the pieces. They all know the stunt will be violent, irreversible and unnecessary, yet they wallow in an existential malaise bred by boredom. Bart must jump because it is the "one thing that has made him special." Lorraine threatens to abort his child and run away if he survives. Like Bart, she could simply choose a more positive option, but she, too, is unable "to change the inevitably bitched nature of things in general."
With no strong story to serve as a distraction, Nichols provides painful insights into people whose concept of affection is to keep talking on the telephone after the other party hangs up. Even conversations about life and death radiate gracelessness.
"'You look like a ghost,'" Marcel says, trying to convince his father to cancel the jump. "'I've never seen you looking so . . . so flabby.'"
"'Happens to the best of us, kid. Nobody gets out of life alive.'"
"'Thank you, Paul Newman.'"
"'Don't be disrespectful . . . '"
All of this suggests A Ghost in the Music will die once Bart jumps. It doesn't, however, because Nichols' finale makes the Bart-Marcel relationship speak for fathers and sons loving each other everywhere. Throughout, Marcel has been trying to understand his father, to comprehend why he imposes suffering on those he loves. Bart always keeps him at a distance, revealing in a moment of weakness, for example, that what he really misses most in life is "to experience once again what it felt like to believe in Santa Claus."
Only after the jump does Marcel realize that life's truly worthy problems cannot be anticipated. He is left at peace with his own emotions, at the same time numbed by the same desire he had before the jump, a need to "cast a net around my father and pluck him from his own life, setting him down tenderly on a foreign shore where he might begin again . . . "
Nichols may still write another best seller. But he'll never do a better job of capturing how it feels to love someone who doesn't stay around to be loved.