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January 18, 2004 on John Gardner - No Happy Endings

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Back in the seventies when I was teaching English I used to pair up books.  When my students were reading Hamlet they were also reading Tom Stoppard's Rosencrantz and Guildenstern Are Dead.  And when they were studying Beowulf, they were also reading John Gardner's Grendel (1971), a retelling of Beowulf from the monster's point of view.   Ah, those were the days.


And now theres a new biography of John Gardner.  Gardner (1933-1982) was a Batavia, New York "farm boy" turned professor of creative writing and Anglo-Saxon literature.  Yes, his big break was Grendel, which was on lots of lists as one of the year's best novels.


Then there was The Sunlight Dialogues (1972), set in Batavia, New York, that spent sixteen weeks on the New York Times best-seller list, and then October Light (1976), about a rather nasty Vermont farmer that won the National Book Critics Award for fiction.


He was big.


And now the new biography is John Gardner: Literary Outlaw - Barry Silesky, Algonquin Books. 358 pages


Carlin Romano reviews this in the Philadelphia Inquirer and has some amusing things to say.


First this assessment:


During the glory days of John Gardner in the late '70s, the pipe-smoking, flamboyantly white-maned medievalist regularly provoked fellow American novelists to joust over the nature of literary fiction as if it were the Vietnam War, and mattered just as much.


Well, maybe books mattered more back then.


So what was so provocative about Gardner?


Once established, the hard-drinking, chain-smoking, routinely disheveled Gardner started his critical rhubarb with a series of proselytizing lectures at colleges and universities about what great novels should be.  That culminated in On Moral Fiction (1978), a book attacking both contemporaries and literary elders, which led to an appearance on The Dick Cavett Show and a prominent New York Times Magazine article that exploded the controversy beyond polite literary circles.


For Gardner, great fiction needed to be "moral" fiction, by which he did not mean moralistic in the sense of a minister's sermon.  Rather, Gardner believed superior fiction, fiction worthy of being deemed art, had to open-mindedly test values against the "real-life causal consequences" of the world.  That life-affirming process of uncovering truth - free of contrived O. Henry endings, experimental trickery, or mannered irony and cynicism - deserved the adjective moral.


Writers who failed to meet those standards - Gardner fingered Donald Barthelme, John Barth and Saul Bellow in different places - ranked as "minor" or "second-rate."


Well, I disagree about Donald Barthelme.  I thought he was great.  And subtle and deep and all that sort of thing. 


But the others fought back.  Roland Barth accused him of "making a shrill pitch to the literary right wing that wants to repudiate all of modernism and jump back into the arms of their 19th-century literary grandfathers."  Bernard Malamud thought Gardner "lacking in generosity."  Joseph Heller labeled him "a pretentious young man."  Even William Gass, with whom Gardner generally got along, accused him of "glibness" and "preachiness." 


Geez, guys, lighten up.  All he said was he didn't like happy endings or cynicism.  He was just a realist!


Well, Gardner died at forty-nine in a motorcycle accident near Susquehanna, Pennsylvania.  (He came to live in Pennsylvania after a career of moving around the country to teach at institutions such as Oberlin College, Southern Illinois University at Carbondale, Bennington College, and, finally, SUNY/Binghamton.)  Let him rest in peace.


Here's what Silesky says of the new biography.


Barry Silesky, who teaches at the Art Institute of Chicago, does not attempt to make John Gardner: Literary Outlaw a critical biography.  He devotes only a page or two to most of Gardner's novels, summarizing the plot or identifying a theme or two.  And he hardly quotes from Gardner's work: The novelist's own voice emerges only in a sentence here, a remark there.  Far more interesting to the author is the legendary party boy's art with vodka and gin.


"He was an Olympic gin drinker," one old pal comments. "He was always backed up against the sink, and there was always a crowd around him.  I asked him once why he was always in the kitchen, and he said, 'That's where the ice is.' "


Silesky, an admiring ex-student of Gardner's, cares mainly about the personality that drove the prolific, gregarious, motormouthed writer, always engaged in several projects at once - a man many knew around the '70s literary circuit, but one few understood well.


In that respect, Silesky delivers, providing a kind of first-draft narrative for future critical biographies.  He has debriefed many key players in Gardner's life, if not all (it's hard to tell, because the book lacks footnotes), and he successfully conveys the spirit of his man.


It seems Silesky is claiming Gardner's works all reflected a pronounced psychological burden: Gardners belief that he bore responsibility, at the age of eleven, for the death of his six-year-old brother, Gilbert, in an accident that happened while John was towing a 1,500-pound cultipacker with a tractor.  Maybe so.  I've heard that before.


This is supposed to explain Gardners "antiauthority temperament," and "seemingly unlimited energy" that made him supremely productive but also left him "at odds with the physical world around him," resulting in more than his share of broken bones, concussions and other injuries.  And made him a cantankerous fellow.


Yeah, yeah.


But the books matter more.  I'm sure Gardner was relatively insufferable.   So what?