John Gardner (1933 –1982) is a difficult writer to classify. He was alternately a realist and a fabulist, a novelist of ideas and a writer who maintained that characters and human situations are always more important than philosophy. He was, as well, an academically inclined New Novelist whose work is formally innovative, stylistically extravagant, openly parodic, and highly allusive; yet, at the same time, he was an accessible, popular storyteller, one whom some critics, in the wake of On Moral Fiction, have labeled a reactionary traditionalist. It is perhaps best to think of Gardner not as a writer who belongs to any one school but instead as a writer who, in terms of style, subject, and moral vision, mediates between the various extremes of innovation and tradition, freedom and order, individual and society. He employed the metafictionist’s narrative tricks, for example, not to show that fiction—and, by extension, life—is mere artifice, meaningless play, but to put those tricks to some higher purpose. His fiction raises a familiar but still urgent question: How is humankind to act in a seemingly inhospitable world where chance and uncertainty appear to have rendered all traditional values worthless?
As different as his characters are in most outward aspects, they are similar in one important way: They are idealists who feel betrayed when their inherited vision of harmony and purpose crumbles beneath the weight of modern incoherence. After being betrayed, they abandon their childlike ideals and embrace the existentialist position that Gardner deplores for its rationalist assumptions and pessimistic moral relativism. His antidote to the modern malaise in general and Jean-Paul Sartre’s “nausea” in particular is a twentieth century version of the heroic ideal: common heroes—fathers and husbands, farmers and professors, for example—who intuitively understand that whatever the odds against them, they must act as if they can protect those whom they love. Instead of pure and powerful knights dedicated to a holy quest, Gardner’s heroes are confused, sometimes ridiculous figures who learn to overcome their feelings of betrayal and find their strength in love, memory, and forgiveness. Choosing to act responsibly, they achieve a certain measure of human dignity. In effect, the choice these characters face is a simple one: either to affirm “the buzzing blooming confusion” of life, as Gardner, quotingWilliam James, calls it, or to deny it. Whereas the existentialist finds in that confusion meaningless abundance and historical discontinuity, Gardner posits meaningful variety and an interconnectedness that assumes value and makes the individual a part of, not apart from, the human and natural worlds in which he or she lives.
To find, or imagine, these connections is the role Gardner assigns to the artist. This view, propounded at length in On Moral Fiction, clearly puts Gardner at odds with other contemporary writers of innovative fiction who, he claims, too readily and uncritically accept the views of Sartre, Sigmund Freud, Ludwig Wittgenstein, and other twentieth century pessimists. Art, Gardner maintains, ought not merely to reflect life as it is but also should portray life as it should be. This does not mean that Gardner approves of simple-minded affirmations, for he carefully distinguishes “true” artists from those who simplify complex moral issues, as well as from those who, like William H. Gass, sidestep such issues entirely by creating “linguistic sculpture” in which only the “surface texture” is important.
Believing that art does indeed affect life and accepting Percy Bysshe Shelley’s conception of the artist as legislator for all humankind, Gardner calls for a moral fiction that provides “valid models for imitation, eternal verities worth keeping in mind, and a benevolent vision of the possible” that will cause the reader to feel uneasy about his or her failings and limitations and stimulate him or her to act virtuously. Moral fiction, however, is not didactic; rather, it involves a search for truth. The author “gropes” for meaning in the act of writing and revising his story; then, by creating suspense, he devises for the reader a parallel experience. The meaning that author and reader discover in Gardner’s work emphasizes the importance of rejecting existential isolation and accepting one’s place in the human community, the “common herd” as Gardner calls it in one story. This meaning is not so much rational and intellectual as intuitive and emotional, less a specific message than a feeling—as is entirely appropriate in the case of a writer who defines fiction as “an enormously complex language.”
Despite their very different settings—modern Batavia, New York, and ancient Sparta—Gardner’s first two published novels, The Resurrection and The Wreckage of Agathon, share a number of common features—main characters who are professional philosophers, for example—and also share one fault: Both are overrich in the sense that they include too many undeveloped points that seem to lead nowhere and only tend to clutter the narrative.
The Resurrection is a fairly straightforward, realistic novel about the ways in which its main character, James Chandler, confronts the fact of death. His disease, leukemia, involves the mindless proliferation of lymph cells and so reflects the universe itself, which may be, as Chandler speculates, similarly chaotic and purposeless. Philosophy does not at first provide Chandler with a Boethian consolation because he, as a distinctly modern man, suspects that philosophy may be nothing more than a meaningless technique, a self-enclosed game. The novel thus raises the question of the purpose of philosophy, art, literature, and even medicine. Chandler’s mother knows that the job of philosophers is to help people like her understand what their experiences and their world mean. Meaning, however, is precisely what contemporary philosophy generally denies and what Chandler wisely struggles to find. His breakthrough occurs when he realizes Immanuel Kant’s fundamental error, the failure to see that moral and aesthetic affirmations are interconnected and need not—or should not—necessitate that the individual who makes the affirmation be entirely disinterested; that is, the affirmation may have—or should have—some practical application, some usefulness.
Sharing this knowledge becomes rather difficult for Chandler. His sympathetic and loving wife, Marie, is too practical-minded to understand him. Nineteen-year-old Viola Stacey, who, torn between cynicism and her childlike “hunger for absolute goodness,” falls in love with Chandler, misinterprets his writing as an escape from reality precipitated by his intense physical suffering. More interesting is John Horne, who, like Chandler, is a terminal patient. According to Horne, a believer in legal technique, love is illusion and humanity is composed of clowns who act with no reason for their behavior. Like Viola, he assumes that art is an escape from life, or an “atonement” for one’s failures and mistakes. Although he is interested in philosophy and acquainted with Chandler’s published works, his endless prattling precludes Chandler’s sharing the discovery with him. However, Chandler does finally, if indirectly, communicate his vision. By putting it to some practical use (he dies trying to help Viola), Chandler finds what Horne never does: something or someone worth dying for, some vision worth affirming. “It was not the beauty of the world one must affirm,” he suddenly understands, “but the world, the buzzing blooming confusion itself.” Understanding that life is what drives humanity to art and philosophy, to fashion a life for oneself and others that is ennobling and useful (realistically idealistic, Gardner seems to suggest), Chandler fights down his physical and philosophical nausea. His vision worth perpetuating, he lives on—is resurrected—in the memories of those whom he loved, and thus for whom he died.
The Wreckage of Agathon
Early in The Resurrection, Gardner quotes the British philosopher R. G. Collingwood: “History is a process . . . in which the things that are destroyed are brought into existence. Only it is easier to see their destruction than to see their construction, because it does not take long.” Like Gardner, James Chandler in The Resurrection affirms Collingwood’s optimistic position, a position which the title character of The Wreckage of Agathon unwisely rejects. Insofar as he stands in opposition to the law-and-order society established in Sparta by the tyrant Lykourgus, the seer Agathon is an appealing figure. No system built solely upon reason, least of all one as inflexible as Sparta’s, is adequate to the variety and complexity of life, Gardner implies, but this does not mean that the only alternative is the nihilism espoused by Agathon, who had “spent so much time seeing through men’s lies he’d forgotten what plain truth looked like.” Having once been a lover of truth and beauty, Agathon (“the good”) now mocks them; choosing to embody “the absolute idea of No,” he is the one who sees the wreckage that was, is, and will be, the one who dismisses all art and ideals as mere illusions.
Whereas Chandler learns to put his philosophy to some use, Agathon comes to value his ideas more highly than people. Unlike Chandler, who eventually accepts death, mutability, and human limitations and in this way transcends them, Agathon refuses to see wreckage as being part of life; for him it is the ultimate fact. The cause of Agathon’s pessimism is not cosmic but personal; it is the result of his repeated betrayals of his friends, his wife, and his lover. This is the knowledge that haunts Agathon, however much he tries to hide it behind his leering clown’s mask, leading him to believe that to be alive is necessarily to be a threat to others. Although he dies of the plague, Agathon’s real sickness is of the soul: the inability to believe in love and human dignity as actual possibilities. The fact that they are real is clearly shown in the characters of his friend Dorkis, leader of the Helot revolt, and his young disciple Demodokos, whose prison journal alternates with Agathon’s (together they make up Gardner’s novel). Demodokos, the “Peeker” to Agathon’s “Seer,” represents that childlike faith and goodness of heart that the disillusioned Seer has renounced. Patient, understanding (if not completely comprehending), and above all committed to others, the Peeker is the one who, for all his naïveté, or perhaps because of it, serves as Gardner’s hero.
Agathon reappears in Gardner’s next novel as the perversely likable narrator of Grendel, a retelling of Beowulf from the monster’s distinctly modern point of view. In his 1970 essay, “Fulgentius’s Expositio Vergiliana Continentia,” Gardner argues that the Beowulf poet used his three monsters as perversions of those virtues affirmed by Vergil in the Aeneid (c. 29-19 b.c.e.): valor, wisdom, and goodness (the proper use of things). Specifically, Grendel represents perverted wisdom; in Gardner’s novel, he is the one who mistakenly chooses to believe in what he rationally knows and to reject what he intuitively feels. In both the epic and the novel, Grendel is an isolate, a cosmic outlaw, but Gardner’s monster is less a hulking beast than a shaggy Holden Caulfield (The Catcher in the Rye), a disillusioned and therefore cynical adolescent. Not simply a creature cursed by God, he is a detached Sartrean observer, a relativist for whom “balance” can be both “everything” and “nothing,” and a comic ironist trapped within his own mocking point of view. For him the world is a meaningless accident, “wreckage.” Although he finds the indignity of the men he observes humorous, he is less tolerant of the factitious patterns they use to make sense of their existence.
Grendel makes his chief mistake when, having become dissatisfied with what is, he goes to the Dragon for advice and guidance. The Dragon is a bored and weary existentialist who espouses the philosophy of Sartre’s L’ Étre et le néant, 1943 (Being and Nothingness, 1956). He tells the confused and terrified Grendel that values are merely things, all of which are worthless, and counsels fatalistic passivity in the face of a fragmented, purposeless world. Although Grendel becomes infected by the Dragon’s nihilism, he still feels attracted to King Hrothgar’s court poet, the Shaper, whose songs he believes are lies. Unlike the Dragon, who is the ultimate realist and materialist, the Shaper is a visionary who sings of the “projected possible” and an alchemist who transforms the base ore of barbarism into the gold of civilization. His songs bespeak hopefulness and, by means of what the Dragon scornfully terms the “gluey whine of connectedness,” a dream of order. Moreover, his singing works: The Shaper’s words first envision Hrothgar’s splendid meadhall and then inspire the men to build it.
Grendel’s ambivalence toward the Shaper also marks his attitude toward Wealtheow, the wife bestowed on Hrothgar by her brother in order to save his tribe from the king’s army. Whereas Grendel gloats over man’s indignity, Wealtheow, whose name means “holy servant of the common good,” has the power to absolve it. She brings to Hrothgar’s kingdom the illusion of timeless peace, an illusion that, like the Shaper’s words, works. Although her “monstrous trick against reason” enrages Grendel, he too is affected by it, temporarily discontinuing his attacks and choosing not to commit “the ultimate act of nihilism,” murdering the queen.
The Shaper (art), the queen (peace and love), and the hero Beowulf represent those values “beyond what’s possible” that make human existence worthwhile. Interestingly, Gardner’s Beowulf is, like Grendel, an isolate, and, in his fight with the mon- ster, appears as a dragon—not Grendel’s adviser but the celestial dragon that figures chiefly in Eastern religions. Where Grendel sees accident and waste, the hero finds purpose and regeneration. During their struggle, Beowulf forces Grendel to “sing walls,” that is, to forgo his mocking cynicism and to take on the role of Shaper, the one who by his art shapes reality (what is) into an illusion or vision of what can or should be. Thus, Grendel is not simply defeated; he is transformed—his death a ritual dismemberment, a symbolic initiation and rebirth.
Although the novel affirms the heroic ideal, it nevertheless acknowledges the tragic view that informs its Anglo-Saxon source. The meadhall the Shaper sings into existence, to which the queen brings peace, and that Beowulf saves, is a symbol of what virtuous man can achieve, but it is also tangible evidence that art, love, and heroic action can defeat chaos for a limited time only and that, finally, the Dragon is right: “Things fade.” Against this tragic awareness, to which the Dragon and Grendel passively acquiesce, Gardner posits the creative possibilities of human endeavor, especially art. It is, after all, as much the action (plot) of Beowulf as Beowulf’s heroic act that defeats Gardner’s Grendel and the monstrous values he represents. Gardner’s alternative to Grendel’s mindless universe and brute mechanics is implied in the novel’s very structure. Its twelve chapters suggest not only Grendel’s twelve-year war against Hrothgar and the twelve books of literary epics but also the symbol of universal harmony, the zodiac (each chapter of the novel is keyed to an astrological sign). Grendel, therefore, is not a postmodern parody of Beowulf; rather, it is a work in which parody is used to test the values presented in Beowulf (and its other sources: William Shakespeare, William Blake, John Milton, Samuel Beckett, Georges Sorel, Sartre, and others) to discover their usefulness in the modern world.
The Sunlight Dialogues
Like Grendel, The Sunlight Dialogues (which was written earlier) depends in part on Gardner’s skillful interlacing of his literary sources: Gilgamesh, Sir Thomas Malory’s Le Morte d’Arthur (1485), Dante, Herman Melville’s Moby Dick (1851), William Faulkner, and A. Leo Oppenheim’s Ancient Mesopotamia: Portrait of a Dead Civilization (1977). It appears to be, at first glance, part family chronicle, part mystery story, but beneath the surface realism, the reader finds elements of fantasy and myth. By an elaborate system of plots and subplots, each echoing the others, Gardner weaves together his eighty-odd characters into a densely textured whole that contrasts with his characters’ sense of social and spiritual fragmentation. The main characters appear as isolates—the marked children of Cain—and as prisoners trapped in cells of their own making. Some blindly strike out for absolute personal freedom (Millie Hodge, for example), while others passively accept the small measure of freedom to be had in the cage of their limitations (Millie’s ex-husband, Will Hodge, Sr.). As adults living in a world “decayed to ambiguity,” they are like one character’s young daughter whose toys frustrate her “to tears of wrath.” Their frustration leads not to tantrums but to cynical denial of all hope, all ideals, and all connections between self and other.
The modern condition is illustrated in the fate of the Hodge clan. Just as their farm, Stony Hill, is said to symbolize “virtues no longer found,” the late congressman represents the unity and sense of idealistic purpose missing in the Batavia of 1966. His qualities now appear in fragmented and diluted form in his five children: Will, Sr., a lawyer and toggler who can repair but not build; Ben, the weak-willed visionary; Art, Jr., the tinkerer; Ruth, the organizer; and Taggert, who inherits his father’s genius, purity of heart, and pride, but not his luck. The failure of the congressman’s harmonious vision leads to the moral relativism of the Sunlight Man on one hand and the reductive law-and-order morality of Batavia’s chief of police, Fred Clumly, on the other.
The Sunlight Man is the congressman’s youngest child, the angelic Tag, transmogrified by misfortune into a forty-year-old devil. Badly disfigured by the fire that kills his two sons, he returns to his hometown in the shape of a Melvillean monomaniac. Having searched for love and truth but having found only betrayal and illusion, he claims that love and truth do not exist; having failed to heal his psychotic wife or protect his sons, he proclaims all actions absurd. His magic tricks are cynical jokes intended to expose all meanings as self-delusions. His four dialogues with the police chief serve the same purpose: to disillusion Clumly, representative of the Judeo- Christian culture. Taking the Babylonian position, the Sunlight Man propounds the complete separation of spirit and matter, the feebleness and inconsequentiality of the individual human life, and the futility of the desire for fame and immortality. Personal responsibility, he says, means nothing more than remaining free to act out one’s fated part. Although his dialogues are in fact monologues, it is significant that the Sunlight Man feels it necessary to make any gesture at all toward Clumly and that he finds some relief once he has made it. Similarly, his magic not only evidences his nihilism but also serves to mask the fact that despite his monstrous appearance and philosophy, he is still human enough—vulnerable enough—to feel the need for fellowship and love.
It is this need that Clumly eventually comes to understand. Powerless to stop either the local or the national epidemic of senseless crimes and bewildered by a world that appears to be changing for the worse, the sixty-four-year-old police chief at first seizes upon the Sunlight Man as the embodiment of evil in the modern world. Slowly the molelike, ever-hungry Clumly abandons this Manichaean notion and begins to search for the complicated truth. Clumly strikes through the pasteboard mask and, unlike Melville’s Ahab, or the Sunlight Man who is made in his image, finds not the abyss but Taggert Hodge.
Throughout the novel, Clumly feels a strong sense of personal responsibility for his town and all its citizens, but, at the same time, he finds no clear answer to his repeated question, “What’s a man to do?” He understands that there is something wrong with the Sunlight Man’s philosophy but is not able to articulate what it is; he realizes that in separating the world into actual and ideal, the Sunlight Man has limited the choices too narrowly, but he has no idea what the other choices might be. The conflict between head and heart affects Clumly profoundly and eventually costs him his job. Only at this point can he meet Taggert Hodge as “Fred Clumly, merely mortal.” In the novel’s final chapter, Clumly, speaking before a local audience, abandons the text of his hackneyed speech on “Law and Order” and delivers instead an impromptu and inspired sermon, or eulogy (Taggert having been killed by a policeman) that transforms the Sunlight Man into “one of our number.” Ascending to a healing vision of pure sunlight, Clumly, “shocked to wisdom,” spreads the gospel according to Gardner: Man must try to do the best he possibly can; “that’s the whole thing.”
Although not published until 1973, Nickel Mountain was begun nearly twenty years earlier while Gardner was an undergraduate at Washington University. The fact that parts of the novel originally appeared as self-contained short stories is evident in the work’s episodic structure and unnecessary repetition of background material. Nevertheless, Nickel Mountain is one of Gardner’s finest achievements, especially in the handling of characters and setting.
The novel’s chief figure is the enormously fat, middle-aged bachelor Henry Soames, owner of a diner somewhere in the Catskill Mountains. Alternately sentimental and violent, Henry is a kind of inarticulate poet or priest whose hunger is not for the food he eats but for the love he has never experienced. Similarly, his Stop Off is less a run-down diner than a communal meeting place, a church where the light (“altar lamp”) is always on and misfits are always welcome. Willard Freund and Callie Wells, for example, see in Henry the loving father neither has had. Longing to escape their loveless families and fulfill their adolescent dreams, they find shelter at the diner.Willard, however, chooses to follow his father’s advice rather than act responsibly toward Callie, whom he has impregnated—a choice that, perversely, confirms Willard in his cynicism and colors his view of human nature. Betrayal comes early to sixteen-year-old Callie (Calliope: the muse of epic poetry) and, as with Willard, leaves its mark. When Henry fumblingly proposes marriage, she interprets her acceptance as an entirely selfish choice. Gardner’s description of the wedding, however, shows that, whatever Callie’s motivation, the ceremony serves as a communal celebration of those values she and Henry unconsciously affirm and Willard mistakenly denies.
Henry’s charity looms as large in the novel as his bulk and seems to extend to everyone but himself. When Simon Bale, a belligerently self-righteous Jehovah’s Witness, loses his wife and his home, Henry naturally takes him in, but when Henry accidentally causes Bale to fall to his death, he turns suicidal. Henry’s suicide attempt takes a rather comical form—overeating—but his predicament is nevertheless serious. To accept Simon Bale’s death as an accident, Henry believes, would be to admit that chance governs the universe and to forfeit all possibility of human dignity. This either/or approach precludes Henry’s understanding of one fundamental point: that man is neither hero nor clown, savior nor devil, but a mixture of both; the best he can do is to hope and to act on the strength of that hope.
Henry’s friend George Loomis understands Henry’s predicament and understands too the flaw in his reasoning, but George is unable to act on this knowledge when he accidentally kills the Goat Lady. As foul-smelling as her goats and even more comically grotesque in appearance than Henry Soames, the Goat Lady passes through the area on her pilgrim’s progress in search of her son, Buddy Blatt. Because the drought-stricken farmers turn this mindless creature into a symbol of hopefulness, George’s lie—that he knows she is still alive and searching—keeps their illusion and hopes alive; in a sense, he saves his friends from despair, or so Callie believes. From Gardner’s perspective, however, George’s failure to explain what actually happened and to confess his guilt signals his having lost his place in the human community. The fact that George has always been in danger of losing his humanity, and thus becoming a Grendel, is evident in the way he is described: an ankle smashed during the Korean War, a heart broken by a sixteen-year-old prostitute, an arm torn off by a corn binder, and his lonely existence in a house much too large for one man up on Crow Mountain.
In a key scene, George leaves the Soameses and returns to his house, where, having heard about a recent murder on nearby Nickel Mountain, he becomes terrified, expecting to find murderous thieves looting his “things.” Only after he has crawled through the mud, searched the house, and put his rifle down, does he realize his absurdity. More shocking is the knowledge that had Henry Soames acted in precisely the same way, there would have been nothing absurd about it for Henry would have been acting for Callie and their son, Jimmie.
It is true that Henry does appear ridiculous throughout much of Nickel Mountain; Gardner’s purpose here is not to deny his dignity but to qualify it, to make human dignity a realizable ideal in a fictional world where the prevailing mood is one of comic reconciliation rather than existential despair. Against George Loomis’s isolation and love of things, the novel counsels responsibility and charitable love. It is, as its subtitle attests, A Pastoral Novel, in which the rural setting is used to affirm the value of community in the face of fragmentation and indifference. Gardner’s pastoral simplifies the plight of modern humankind without becoming either simplistic or sentimental. Henry’s Nickel Mountain represents freedom and clarity, but it also serves as a reminder of humanity’s limitations and mortality. If the Christian virtues of faith, hope, and charity constitute one part of Gardner’s approach to life, the other is, as one stoic character puts it, having the nerve to ride life down.
Gardner has called Nickel Mountain his “simplest” novel; October Light, also a pastoral of sorts, is a much more complex work—more varied in style and characters, at once funnier and yet more serious than Nickel Mountain. Most of October Light takes place on Prospect Mountain in Vermont, where seventy-two-year old James L. Page and his eighty-year-old sister, Sally Abbott, are locked in “a battle of the bowels.” James, the taciturn New England farmer, suffers from constipation as a result of having to eat his own cooking. A bigot, he simplifies right and wrong and rages against the valuelessness of modern life to the point of shotgunning Sally’s television and locking her in her bedroom. James, however, is more than merely a comic buffoon; he is also a man burdened with guilt and oppressed by mortality—not only his own approaching end but also the accidental death of a young son, the suicides of his son Richard and his uncle Ira, and the passing away of his wife Ariah in bitter silence. Self-reliant in the worst sense, James is outwardly unemotional (except for his anger), distant from those around him and from his innermost feelings. Only when he realizes the degree to which he is responsible for Richard’s death and the part Richard played in accidentally frightening his Uncle Horace (Sally’s husband) to death, does James once again take his place in the natural world and the human community.
Sally, meanwhile, a self-appointed spokeswoman for all oppressed minorities, remains locked in her room where, having nothing to eat but apples, she suffers from loose bowels. A liberal in name if not in fact, she thinks of her stubborn refusal to leave her room as a protest against her tyrannical brother. She is encouraged in her “strike” by the paperback book she reads, The Smugglers of Lost Souls’ Rock. Constituting nearly 40 percent of the text of October Light, this novel-within-a-novel parodies the two kinds of fashionable literature assailed by Gardner in On Moral Fiction: the reflexive and the cynically didactic. Although Sally is not an especially discriminating reader, she does understand that The Smugglers of Lost Souls’ Rock is trash— entertaining perhaps, but certainly not true. As she continues to read, however, the book, which she begins to see as a reflection of her situation, starts to exert its pernicious influence. Slowly Sally adopts its values and point of view as her own: its moral relativism, nihilistic violence, the acceptance of an accidental and therefore purposeless universe, and a casually superficial and irresponsible attitude toward human relationships. The subjects that are so weightlessly and artlessly handled in her paperback novel (suicide, for one) are substantive matters of concern in the “real” lives of James and Sally; but this is a point that Sally, caring less for the Pages to whom she is related than for the pages of her novel, does not understand.
In effect, October Light successfully dramatizes the argument of On Moral Fiction, that art provides its audience with models and therefore affects human behavior. Reading The Smugglers of Lost Souls’ Rock leads Sally to devise and implement a plan to kill James; when the plan misfires and nearly results in the death of her niece, Sally, like the characters in her book, feels neither responsibility nor remorse. James is similarly affected by the violence he sees on television and, more particularly, by his Uncle Ira, who appears to have been more a monster than a man and certainly a poor model for James to pattern his own life after. The more James and Sally become like characters in what Gardner calls trivial or immoral fiction, playing out their inflexible parts as victimized woman locked in a tower or rugged New England farmer, the greater the danger that they will lose their humanity and become either caricatures or monsters. One such caricature in The Smugglers of Lost Souls’ Rock dismisses all fiction, claiming that the trashiest “is all true” and “the noblest is all illusion.” In their wiser moments, Sally and James know better; they understand that art is humanity’s chief weapon in the battle against chaos and death (what James calls “gravity”) and that the true artist is the one who paints “as if his pictures might check the decay— decay that . . . people hadn’t yet glimpsed.”
As in Nickel Mountain, Gardner’s affirmation avoids sentimentality. Acknowledging the fact of death, acknowledging how easily the agreements that bind people together can be broken, he exposes the fragility of human existence. What makes his characters’ lives even more difficult is the way in which their knowledge is, except for brief flashes of understanding, severely limited. Instead of the easy generalizations of trivial fiction, Gardner offers the complex and interrelated mysteries of Horace’s death and Richard’s suicide. Memory plays an especially important part in the novel; implying wordless connections between people and times, it is one effective antidote to Sally’s “reasonable anger” and James’s having stubbornly locked his heart against those he once loved. Another binding force is forgiveness—the willingness to forgive and to be forgiven—which absolves the individual of the intolerable burden of guilt without freeing him or her of all responsibility. James’s son-in-law, Lewis Hicks, for example, can see all sides of an issue and so takes the one course open to humankind (as opposed to monsters): forgiving everyone. Lewis is the dutiful, ever-present handyman who stands ready to shore up everyone else’s ruins, understanding them to be his own as well. Significantly, it is Lewis who first sees the October light that, while a sign of winter and therefore a reminder of death, has the power to transform the everyday world into a vision of radiant, magical beauty, a reminder of that life that is yet to be lived.
Many reviewers regarded Freddy’s Book as one of the least satisfying of Gardner’s novels; certainly it is the most perplexing. Like October Light, it comprises two distinct stories, but in Freddy’s Book the two are not interwoven (Gardner thought October Light was flawed for just that reason). The first part of Freddy’s Book is sixty-four pages long and concerns Professor Jack Winesap’s visit to Madison,Wisconsin, where he delivers a lecture on “The Psycho-Politics of the Late Welsh Fairy Tale: Fee, Fie, Foe—Revolution.” Winesap, a psychohistorian, is a gregarious and sympathetic fellow who appears to accept the relativism and triviality of his age until his meeting with the Agaards makes plain to him the limitations of his easygoing rationalism.
Professor Sven Agaard is a self-righteous dogmatist; his son Freddy, the victim of a genetic disorder, is another in Gardner’s long line of misfits: a sickly looking eightfoot monster dripping baby fat. The manuscript Freddy delivers to Winesap at midnight (Freddy’s Book) constitutes the 180-page second part of Gardner’s novel. Freddy’s tale of sixteenth century Sweden, titled “King Gustav and the Devil,” is a dreadful bore—at least at first. Then the story begins to improve; the style becomes more controlled, the plot more compelling and more complex as Freddy begins to use his fiction writing to explore the possibilities inherent in his story and, analogously, to explore alternatives to his own various confinements.
Many reviewers were puzzled by Gardner’s decision to use the ending of Freddy’s tale to conclude the larger novel, which, they felt, seemed broken in two. This narrative strategy is both understandable and effective once it is considered in the context of Gardner’s “debate on fiction” with his friend, the novelist and critic William Gass. Gass contends that fiction is a self-enclosed and self-referential art object that does not point outside itself toward the world of men but back into “the world within the word.” Gardner, on the other hand, maintains that fiction does extend beyond the page into the reader’s real world, affecting the reader in various and usually indirect ways. In Freddy’s Book, Gardner makes the reader think about what effect Freddy’s manuscript has had on its midnight reader, Winesap.
Freddy’s Book shares with Grendel, The Sunlight Dialogues, Nickel Mountain, and October Light the qualities that have made Gardner a significant as well as a popular modern American novelist: the blend of realism and fantasy, narrative game-playing and serious purpose, and the interest in character that implies Gardner’s interest in humankind. The reader finds characters such as Winesap and Freddy compelling because Gardner draws them honestly, and he draws them honestly because, in part, each represents a side of his own personality. He is as much Grendel as he is the Shaper, as much the anarchic Sunlight Man as the law-and-order police chief Clumly. Gardner sympathizes with those who show the world as it is, but ultimately he rejects their realism in favor of those heroes—poets, farmers, and others—who choose to do what they can to transformthe world into their vision of what it should be, those who, like Gardner, affirm the Shaper’s “as if.”
In the case of Peter J. Mickelsson, protagonist of Gardner’s ninth and last novel, Mickelsson’s Ghosts, the similarity between author and character is especially close: Both are middle-aged, teach at the State University of New York at Binghamton, own farmhouses in Susquehanna, Pennsylvania, have two college-age children, marriages that end badly, difficulties with the Internal Revenue Service, and both find that their careers, like the rest of their lives, are in a state of decline. The very texture of the novel’s 103-word opening sentence makes clear that “something, somewhere had gone wrong with (Mickelsson’s) fix on reality.” According to several influential reviewers, it was not only Mickelsson who had lost his fix; in the pages of Esquire and Saturday Review, for example, Gardner was venomously attacked for his carelessness, boring and pretentious pedantry, implausible language, and failure to resolve or even make sense of his numerous plots: love, ghost, murder, academic life, philosophy, marital stress, sex, environmental issues, and Mormonism. Whether these attacks were directed more against the author of On Moral Fiction than the author of Mickelsson’s Ghosts, as Gardner believed, can only be conjectured. What is certain is that these reviews disturbed Gardner so deeply that for a time he considered giving up novel-writing altogether. Moreover, the hostility shown by reviewers James Wolcott, Robert K. Harris, and others is out of proportion to the novel’s actual defects (in particular, the unconvincing last scene and Gardner’s ill-advised attempts to deal openly with sex). Rather than being a “whopping piece of academic bull slinging” (Wolcott), Mickelsson’s Ghosts is clearly Gardner’s most ambitious work since The Sunlight Dialogues, the novel it most resembles both in scope and narrative power.
Mickelsson (who Gardner says is based on his friend, the poet James Dickey) is in most respects a familiar Gardner protagonist. Just as the novel follows no single course but instead branches out in many seemingly unrelated directions, so too is Mickelsson a man torn apart by his own inner conflicts. He fondly recalls the certainties and ideals of his past, yet at the same time he finds it easier to live in the present by adopting the cynical, existentially free position he abhors. Finding himself in a world that is at best trivial and at worst self-destructive, Mickelsson recoils from all sense of responsibility and from all human relationships (except the most sordid with a teenage prostitute). Having been betrayed by his wife, he himself becomes a betrayer. Mickelsson is, however, too much the good man, the man desirous of goodness and truth, unwilling to accept any rift between mind and body, thought and deed, to rest easy in his fallen state. Thus Mickelsson’s many ghosts: those of the former owners of his farmhouse, the murderous Spragues; those from his past (wife, children, psychiatrist); the philosophical ghosts of Martin Luther, Friedrich Nietzsche, Wittgenstein, and others; and most important, the ghost of his better self.
By restoring his farmhouse, Mickelsson is in effect attempting his own moral restoration project. Before he can be freed of his ghosts, however, Mickelsson must first feel the need to confess his guilt (he is, among other things, responsible for a man’s death)—to confess his guilt rather than to internalize it out of shame (as George Loomis does in Nickel Mountain) or to wallow in it as if values did not exist. Only then, through forgiveness, can he enjoy the saving grace of human community.Within the novel’s murder-mystery plot, Mickelsson escapes from the murderous design of a fanatical colleague, Professor Lawler, a self-appointed avenging angel, only after making his act of faith in the form of a wholly irrational “psychic cry for help.” Acknowledging his dependency on others and, later, accepting his place within the human community, Mickelsson becomes whole again. More than a novel about one man’s redemption, Mickelsson’s Ghosts is an exploration of the way in which the modern-world individual can truly find himself—the self that he longs to be—and that discovery can only occur, Gardner believes, in the context of the individual’s commitment to others and of their commitment to him.
“Stillness” and “Shadows”
The posthumously published book “Stillness” and “Shadows” was drawn from the University of Rochester’s extensive collection of the author’s papers. Stillness appears as Gardner wrote it in the mid-1970’s, in the form of a complete but unrevised draft that Gardner apparently never intended for publication, though he did mine it for two of his finest short stories, “Stillness” and “Redemption.” Written as psychotherapy in an effort to save his failing first marriage, it is Gardner’s most intimate and autobiographically revealing work. The main characters appear as thinly disguised versions of John and Joan Gardner. Martin Orrick, who Gardner nicknamed Buddy, is a professor and novelist; he is stubborn, opinionated, unfaithful, and often drunk. Joan, his wife and cousin, is a musician who has given up her career in order to allow her husband to pursue his. Although she has reason to complain, she, too, has faults and must share responsibility for their marital difficulties. Both are, however, redeemed, in a sense, in that, as critical as they may be of each other outwardly, each is inwardly critical of himself or herself. The breakup of their marriage is handled with an intensity and sensitivity unusual in Gardner’s fiction but not without the typically Gardnerian concern for seeing an isolated fact of domestic life as a sign of the universal decay that the novel’s improbable happy ending serves only, ironically, to underscore.
Stillness evidences considerable promise; Shadows, on the other hand, suggests a certain pretentiousness on Gardner’s part, given his remarks to interviewers on this work in progress. The published novel is nothing more than a patchwork toggled together by fellow novelist Nicholas Delbanco from the author’s voluminous notes and drafts. Set in Carbondale, Illinois, the novel concerns Gardner’s seriocomic, hardboiled detective Gerald Craine, as he tries to find a murderer and protect a young Jewish student, Ellen Glass, who has come to him for help. Craine’s search for the murderer becomes a search for truth. Delbanco’s text makes clear what was to have been the novel’s thematic center, Craine’s discovery that he cannot protect Ellen, whom he has come to love. The published work, however, does not support Gardner’s claim that Shadows would be his most experimental work in terms of technique as well as his most conservative in terms of values. That claim is nevertheless important, for much of Gardner’s greatness as a novelist derives from the unresolved dialogue between the values he sought to affirm and the often postmodern ways he employed to test and often undermine those values.
Long fiction • The Resurrection, 1966; The Wreckage of Agathon, 1970; Grendel, 1971; The Sunlight Dialogues, 1972; Nickel Mountain: A Pastoral Novel, 1973; October Light, 1976; In the Suicide Mountains, 1977; Freddy’s Book, 1980; Mickelsson’s Ghosts, 1982; “Stillness” and “Shadows,” 1986 (with Nicholas Delbanco).
Short fiction: The King’s Indian: Stories and Tales, 1974; The Art of Living, and Other Stories, 1981.
Plays: The Temptation Game, pr. 1977 (radio play); Death and the Maiden, pb. 1979; Frankenstein, pb. 1979 (libretto); Rumpelstiltskin, pb. 1979 (libretto); William Wilson, pb. 1979 (libretto).
Poetry: Jason and Medeia, 1973; Poems, 1978.
Nonfiction: The Construction of the Wakefield Cycle, 1974; The Construction of Christian Poetry in Old English, 1975; The Life and Times of Chaucer, 1977; The Poetry of Chaucer, 1977; On Moral Fiction, 1978; The Art of Fiction: Notes on Craft for Young Writers, 1984; On Writers and Writing, 1994 (Stewart O’Nan, editor); Lies! Lies! Lies! A College Journal of John Gardner, 1999.
Children’s literature: Dragon, Dragon, and Other Tales, 1975; Gudgekin the Thistle Girl, and Other Tales, 1976; A Child’s Bestiary, 1977; The King of the Hummingbirds, and Other Tales, 1977.
Translations: Gilgamesh, 1984 (with John Maier).
Edited texts: The Forms of Fiction, 1962 (with Lennis Dunlap); The Complete Works of the Gawain-Poet, 1965; Papers on the Art and Age of Geoffrey Chaucer, 1967 (with Nicholas Joost); The Alliterative “Morte d’Arthure,” “The Owl and the Nightingale,” and Five Other Middle English Poems, 1971.
Source: Notable American Novelists Revised Edition Volume 1 James Agee — Ernest J. Gaines Edited by Carl Rollyson Salem Press, Inc 2008.