John Nichols, I Got Mine: Confessions of a Midlist Writer (Albuquerque: High Road Books, 2022)

Novelist and screenwriter John Nichols, a staunch but wonderfully wry leftist, is best known for the comedic laid-back subversive prose style of The Milagro Bean Field War, later made into Robert Redford’s second film (after Ordinary People) as director.  But even that illustrious novel only forms the opening salvo of  what became the “New Mexico trilogy”, including what I regard as a 20th Century American  masterpiece The Magic Journey – a gringo magical surrealist rendition of the implacable coming of capitalism for the “Betterment”  of Northern New Mexico’s fictional stand-in for Taos, Chamisaville – and the ferociously anti-Yuppie 1980s era finale The Nirvana Blues.  That’s only the start, for those who think of this migrant New Yorker (and Waspy offspring of a signer of the Declaration of Independence) only as a regional Southwestern writer. Throw into the heady brew his first novel The Sterile Cuckoo (made into an Alan Pakula movie boosting Liza Minelli toward stardom),  the childhood wartime evocations of The Wizard of Loneliness (made into another fine flick), a gripping and gruesome Vietnam novel American Blood, family memoirs, environmental odes, an uncredited but widely known re-write of the Costa-Garvas Oscar-winning film Missing, and many further errant scripting adventures in Hollywood’s crazy climes.  Here is a memoir to do literary justice to all those and many more wayward feats.

Nichols is the son (and grandson) of devout naturalists and it shows everywhere in his literary escapades as well as in half a dozen of so ecological nonfiction works ranging from If Mountains Die to The Sky’s The Limit. You won’t find a sunnier muckraker – his investigative reporting as editor of the New Mexico Review undergirded the trilogy  – or a funnier professed Marxist-Leninist anywhere.  How he manages to retain either trait whilst bashing out at least 35 drafts of everything he undertakes before publication is a transcendental mystery. The autobiography”s title is drawn not from cynical British 1950s cinema comedy (though it draws on the burlesque echoes of I’m All Right, Jack) but rather from an suitably ironic Pink Anderson blues song. Had Nichols played along with the Hollywood and publishing games one suspects he’d be walking around with Pulitzers and Oscars in his pocket and, who knows, a fatwa on his famous head. Still, he brings back alive a host of fascinating and hilarious stories from his glancing contacts with the high and mighty and scurrilous.

Born in 1940 Nichol’s grew up on the East Coast, usually at loggerheads and ultimately making an uneasy truce, with his privileged heritage. The family owned a Long Island estate – virtually a private wildlife preserve – where Nichols summered as a youth, which later was deeded over to the government as a public preserve. His first and lasting love was nature, as taught by his grandfather, a curator at Manhattan’s Museum of Natural History and by his naturalist (and ex-Marine) father and his French wife Monique, John’s mother who died when he was very young.  The rebellious youth tried everything and went everywhere – from a teenage cross-country hitchhiking trip to, later, his grandmother’s Basque village to Greenwich Village to scribble in a garret and pick up blues guitar tips, recounted in The Empanada Brotherhood. In Guatemala he met and was impressed by Diana Oughton when she was a Peace Corps worker (and died later in 1970 in a New York Townhouse explosion from botched Weatherman faction bomb-making). His “college novel” Sterile Cuckoo actually was, the rarest of things, a genuinely good and poignant effort that hit the bestseller list and reaped a movie deal. “I loved being a student at Hamilton,” he admits. “Yet now [on returning for the filming of Sterile Cuckoo] my interaction with students and academic friends and teachers revealed how deeply conservative and reactionary the College was. A safe little repository for white American elitists.” 

The budding star nonetheless was hurtling on his way – ah, but not so fast.  The young man was afflicted with a bad case of scruples.  His second novel The Wizard of Loneliness did OK, but his fascination with capturing in prose the “macroscopic overview”, and with the actual cruel functioning of a predatory and ever-expanding economic system constantly got in the way of a smooth ascent. Why not? Vietnam, anti-imperialism and domestic Civil Rights movements over-spilled and saturated everything for anyone culturally sensitive enough to acknowledge what was going on and being flushed into the open at the time.  As Manhattan got nastier and grimmer, Nichols and his first wife opted in 1969 to move to Taos in New Mexico and make their stand there where he soon was conducting investigations into the seamy water rights antics, rigged electricity deals, and real estate shenanigans that became the basis for his next three utterly memorable novels. 

Hollywood, that ostensibly amiable conman/woman capitol, came knocking.  His serendipitous rewrite of the Oscar-winning screenplay for the controversial film about the 1973 Chilean coup Missing became known in the right circles despite being arbitrated out of a formal credit, and reaped more scripting opportunities that he either rejected – passing on hundred grand or more deals for what he deemed pointless frivolities – or did take up but which mostly wound up in fabled turnaround purgatory, working along the way with directors ranging from Redford (renowned for his unpunctuality) to Karel Reisz to Louis Malle to Ridley Scott (including on embryonic versions of what became Avatar). One wishes dearly, for just one lamentable example, his slaved-over script of Pancho Villa and the Mexican revolution, such as it was, had gotten made, but Nichols’ radical take on the event – or anything else – was not calculated to excite the beady-eyed money guys. There also clearly is a glorious and ghastly “fish out of water” novel here about Marxist writer-meets-Moguls that Nichols has as yet to transport from the realm of nonfiction mordant commentary (of which there is plenty in this tome) into uninhibited fiction.  Maybe it’s only in its 29th draft.

That Nichols at 82 remains alive at all (touch wood), apart from mostly broke, is fairly miraculous given the congenital heart problems that killed his mother.  He reacted with colossal vigor as an athlete, a sportsman, an indefatigable  hiker and a all-around nature explorer, which no doubt kept him going. His love of the outdoors yielded a variety of often poetic volumes on the beauties of the natural world, that became a welcome sideline to his novels and scripts. Anyone in New Mexico knew he could be also counted on to support every progressive cause as well. After three marriages, and several children, his own residence today is a ramshackle one story plot very much like one imagines was inhabited by the protagonists of The Milagro Bean Field War. In the last decade or two Nichols has scribbled a number of smaller, affecting and comic reminiscence novels of his sprightlier days: Conjugal BlissElegy for September, On Top of Spoon Mountain and The Annual Arsenic Big Fishing Contest along with his splendid Ed Abbey-esque short novel The Voice of The Butterfly – many of them spiced and leavened by fictionalized bittersweet traces of his long and somewhat erratic love life. And what women he knew! His memoir is hilarious, frank, tender and entrancing.  Give this extraordinary man’s book(s) a try, if you haven’t already, and you won’t go wrong.  I got mine.

Kurt Jacobsen, after this issue a former Logos book review editor, teaches in the Social Science Division at the University of Chicago.  His latest book is Psychoanalysis, Science and Power: Essays in Honour of Robert Maxwell Young (Routledge 2023) co-edited with R. D. Hinshelwood and his latest documentary is Clancy Sigal: Lord of the Gadflies, premiering at the Santa Fe Film Festival this month. 


Latest Issue

2024: Vol. 23, No. 1

Latest Issue

2024: Vol. 23, No. 1

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By Michael Ruse: Anti-Vaxxers And The Covid Crisis: The Sorry Story Of The Pernicious Influence Of A Pseudo-Science

By Rev. Matthew V. Johnson, Jr: A Letter Of Concern To Black Clergy Regarding “Cop City”

By Firoze Manji: Amílcar Cabral And The Politics Of Culture And Identity

By Andrew Feenberg: The “New” Lukács

By Bill Fletcher, Jr: The Continued Relevance Of W.E.B. Du Bois, Sixty Years On

By Philip Green: On Liberalism

By Benjamin Shepard: On Cities Of Friends And Riots: Between Conflict, Solidarity, And Struggles For Recognition

By Sabby Sagal: REVIEW ESSAY: Dostoevsky as Political Agitator: Alex Chistofi, Dostoevsky in Love: An Intimate Life (London: Bloomsbury, 2022)

By Mario Kessler: Susan Neiman, Left Is Not Woke. New York: Polity Press, 2023

By Warren Leming: Bob Dylan, The Philosophy of Modern Song (New York: Simon & Schuster 2022)

By Kurt Jacobsen: John Nichols, I Got Mine: Confessions of a Midlist Writer (Albuquerque: High Road Books, 2022)

By Aidan J. Beatty: Jo Guidi, The Long Land War: The Global Struggle for Occupancy Rights (New Haven: Yale University Press, 2022)

By Sarah Kamal: Eben Kirksey, The Mutant Project: Inside the Global Race to Genetically Modify Humans Bristol: Bristol University Press, 2021.