In this novel— his largest and richest since The Sunlight Dialogues
—John Gardner has created an entire world, that of Peter J. Mickelsson, professor of philosophy, a brilliant man, once fanatically orderly, devoted to precision (despite his love of Nietzsche), distrustful of passion, but now, since the breakup of his marriage, a man who has lost control of both his life and himself: drinking too much gin, eating DiGels like candy, unable to meet even the simplest, most ordinary demands of life and work, frightened by the knowledge that he is slipping toward violence and madness. Indulging an urgent impulse to escape, Mickelsson buys a rundown farm at the edge of a small town in the Pennsylvania mountains, where—alone—he sets about reconstructing the huge old farmhouse and himself.
The farmhouse, purported to be haunted, can hardly be more haunted than Mickelsson. His world is crowded with "ghosts": not only the great philosophers he blames for the modern world's lunacy, but living people as well—people whom he feels he has betrayed or failed, the people who remain part of his life although no longer near him, and the people he seems powerless to prevent from invading his life now. There are: his family—an estranged wife, with whom he is still involved in a bitter but intimate duel, and his grown children, living lives that disturb and alarm him . . . his colleagues—a murderously competitive philosophy faculty masked in affability and the beautiful woman sociologist whom Mickelsson at first pursues, then flees . . . his students—among them a desperate, perhaps suicidal young man who looks to Mickelsson for his own salvation and the striking, young, mismatched couple in whose love affair Mickelsson has been, from the beginning, unwittingly entangled . . . his neighbors—the smiling real estate agents who sell Mickelsson his farmhouse and the laconic farmer who warns him of its ghosts, the woman doctor whose house it was and who seems to be fleeing it now for dear life, the teenage prostitute with whom Mickelsson becomes obsessed and who provides him with both torment and a kind of fulfillment . . . and all the others—the unhelpful psychiatrist ("You're a sick man," he tells Mickelsson), the half-mad lawyer trying to give order to Mickelsson's affairs, the abrasive and seemingly ubiquitous I.R.S. agents stalking for Mickelsson's unpaid taxes. . . .
And through the story of Mickelsson's increasingly unbalanced attempt at self-regeneraton, we follow the mysterious and dangerous events that intensify his turmoil and hint at a madness deeper than Mickelsson's in the world at large: the midnight passage of unlit trucks over the mountain roads, an unearthly Mormon ritual conducted midstream in the Susquehanna River, a series of unsolved murders in the community, rumors of witchcraft and UFO landings, and, in the farmhouse itself, the gradual emergence of actual ghosts reenacting a long-ago murder and offering the ultimate challenge to Mickelsson's courage, sanity, and will to survive.