John Nichols, author of 'The Milagro Beanfield War,' dies at 83
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John Nichols, author of 'The Milagro Beanfield War,' dies at 83
After decamping from New York to New Mexico, he wrote what was, for a time, among the most widely read novels about Latinos.

by Sam Roberts

NEW YORK, NY.- John Nichols, a New York City transplant to New Mexico whose exuberant novels — notably, “The Milagro Beanfield War” — transformed him from an urban gringo into a local idol, died Nov. 27 at his home in Taos. He was 83.

The cause was heart failure, said his daughter, Tania Harris.

Imbued with a heady pedigree and a peripatetic upbringing, Nichols evolved instinctively from a cosmopolitan New Yorker and world traveler to a Western writer of the purple sage.

He was best known for “The Milagro Beanfield War” (1974), a 445-page political allegory that tells the story of farmers in the fictional town of Milagro Valley who are denied the right to irrigate their farms because water is being diverted to a huge development.

“The Milagro Beanfield War” became a crowd pleaser on college campuses, was venerated in his adopted state and for a while was considered among the most widely read novels about Latinos. In 1988, it was adapted into a film, directed by Robert Redford and starring Rubén Blades, Christopher Walken and Melanie Griffith.

“A lot of his work might be characterized as a long slow-motion valentine to the mountains, mesas, high desert, sky and especially people of New Mexico,” said Stephen Hull, director of University of New Mexico Press, which published Nichols’ memoir “I Got Mine: Confessions of a Midlist Writer” last year.

“He was a comic writer who used tropes of absurdism and excess to depict essential injustices,” Hull said in an email. “He was deeply affected by a period of time he spent in Guatemala in ‘64-’65, and by the poverty, authenticity, even nobility of his neighbors in northern New Mexico.”

Nichols put it this way in “I Got Mine”: “New Mexico’s sense of humor, its history and cultures, as well as its poverty and inequalities affected each sentence I crafted. The novel’s attitude and style had been with me since childhood.”

His other books included two novels set in or around Taos, “The Magic Journey” (1978) and “The Nirvana Blues” (1981), which with “The Milagro Beanfield War” comprised a trilogy. His daughter said he had been editing an anthology of letters, essays and manuscripts at his death.

Despite its success, the critical response to “The Milagro Beanfield War” was mixed. Writing in The New York Times Book Review, Frederick Busch acknowledged Nichols’ wit but pronounced the book an example of “literary colonialism.”

In 1981, Russell Martin wrote in The New York Times Magazine, “At its best, Nichols’s humor — his parodies of lifestyles and his affectionate treatments of frowzy rural pursuits — is artfully crafted. He can even pull off an engaging spoof of that pristine, panoramic imagery that sometimes regrettably seems to be a kind of rosy Western rule of thumb.”

Martin cited this excerpt from “The Nirvana Blues”: “Stars hovered like awed fireflies above the nervous little city. Honky-tonk music from dozens of funky bars danced among the valley’s myriad security lamps forever frozen at the foot of the mysterious mesa. … The brightly lit lime-green bubble over Tennis Heaven’s indoor courts glowed silkily. Into the enchanted night faintly echoed a rhythmic thwock! caused by rackets leisurely pummeling high-altitude balls inside that rippling diaphanous gem.”

John Treadwell Nichols was born July 23, 1940, in Berkeley, California. His mother, Monique Robert, was born in France and raised there and in Spain. His father, David, was the son of John Treadwell Nichols, a curator at the American Museum of Natural History. His paternal grandmother, Cornelia Floyd, was descended from William Floyd, a signer of the Declaration of Independence. His cousin William Weld was the governor of Massachusetts from 1991 to 1997.

John Nichols’ mother died when he was about 2, and he moved frequently as his father remarried and divorced. He attended the Loomis Chaffee School in Windsor, Connecticut, and graduated from Hamilton College in Clinton, New York, with a Bachelor of Arts degree in 1962.

“I wanted to be either a novelist, a cartoonist (like Chester Gould who drew Dick Tracy), or a rock ’n’ roller (like Little Richard),” he wrote in his 2022 memoir.

Declared physically unfit for military service because of injuries he had sustained playing ice hockey, he moved to Barcelona, Spain, to live with his grandmother. While there, when he was 23, he wrote “The Sterile Cuckoo,” a quirky romance that takes place in the private Northeastern college milieu he knew well. Promoted as a novel about “first love, first sex” that featured “a kooky heroine,” it was adapted into a film in 1969 starring Liza Minnelli and directed by Alan J. Pakula.

After he returned to New York, Nichols drafted five novels simultaneously in a fifth-floor, $42.50-a-month walk-up in what is now SoHo. He supported himself by unloading trucks and playing guitar at coffeehouses.

After selling “The Sterile Cuckoo” for $500 and marrying Ruth Wetherell Harding in 1965, he traveled around Latin America. In 1966, he published another novel, “The Wizard of Loneliness,” which was later also made into a movie.

Nichols was married and divorced three times. In addition to his daughter and a son, Luke, both from his first marriage, he is survived by a brother, Tim, and three granddaughters.

In 1969, he moved to Taos, where he learned Spanish and wrote at night. He went on to turn out about a dozen novels, as well as collections of essays, books on nature and a chronicle of his parents’ early life. He never used a computer.

In a 1979 memoir, “If Mountains Die,” he lamented the seismic culture clash that was being waged in Taos, which he described as “a Hippie-Chicano war.”

Still, he said, for all his urbane upbringing, he felt comfortable in Taos, an ethnic enclave and bohemian magnet in the high desert.

“For some reason, the East had overwhelmed me,” he wrote. “But in New Mexico, my relationships soon cut through class lines and occupations.”

This article originally appeared in The New York Times.

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