Gardner, John 1933–
Gardner, a medieval scholar and a prolific novelist, is often cited as one of America's most brilliant and exciting writers of fiction.
The previous Gardner novels I've read [that is, before Nickel Mountain]—The Wreckage of Agathon, Grendel and The Sunlight Dialogues—were interesting (particularly from a technical standpoint) and, in some instances, engrossing; but they all had a disturbing bloated quality. For one thing, Gardner's language never seemed to let up. Sheriff Clumly of The Sunlight Dialogues couldn't simply wince; he had to wince "as if he bit into a lemon."… In addition to the inflated, often awkward, prose, the reader had to contend with the author's incessant preaching. Gardner has been called a "philosophical novelist," and to some extent he is, if by the term one simply means a novelist who explores various ideas and concepts. All well and good. We appreciate such exploration. But too often in these three novels Gardner's ideas were merely recorded, not dramatized, with the result that the "characters" became mouthpieces for the author, and the ideas, presented with little or no subtlety, seemed pedestrian and obvious. No wonder the reader grew weary of Grendel's terribly stylized ranting and raving, Agathon's contrived meditations on freedom, and the Sunlight Man's all-too-perfectly calculated, at-the-drop-of-a-hat speeches on freedom, irrationality, order, and assorted subjects. Gardner seemed to be an incurable preacher. Only in a John Gardner novel would you find a dragon saying: "The essence of life is to be found in the frustrations of established order." Even in his epic poem, Jason and Medea, an eminently forgettable volume, he was determined to deliver ideas, even if they appeared ludicrous ("How, that is, does an astral apogee come to know more about upright action than a vertical line or the loudest possible physical thump?").
The reader of Nickel Mountain, then, is relieved to discover that in this "pastoral novel" (Gardner's term) the author has dispensed with blatant philosophizing and has toned down his language…. Theoretically, Nickel Mountain should be a fine book, the kind of straight, unpretentious novel of character and environment we hoped Gardner might write for a change of pace. Sadly enough, it reveals that although the author does have a gift for describing rural life—in this case, a small Catskill community of the nineteen-fifties—he doesn't have much talent for creating characters or for sustaining sufficient interest in them….
Gardner may have been attempting to "modernize" the pastoral form. But what he has created is simply a traditional novel that doesn't succeed in traditional terms. The dust-jacket notes claim that Nickel Mountain is warm and moving, but these are exactly the traditional virtues that the book so badly lacks. The characters fail to touch us and involve us because they haven't been fully realized and because what often happens to them recalls events in second-rate fiction and drama….
John Gardner has indeed come down to earth in this novel, but, unfortunately, he seemed more comfortable in his own special realm, the one populated, in part, by intensely philosophical prisoners and dragons. (pp. 536-37)
Ronald De Feo, in Commonweal (copyright © 1974 Commonweal Publishing Co., Inc.; reprinted by permission of Commonweal Publishing Co., Inc.), March 1, 1974.
Where Gardner's The Sunlight Dialogues was a mock nineteenth-century novel about a real twentieth-century dilemma, [Nickel Mountain] is (or is trying to be) a real nineteenth-century novel about the timeless ordinariness of most of our lives, measured out as they are in universal events and rituals like marriage, childbirth, illness, mistaken kindnesses, and accidental death. The language, compared with Gardner's earlier, flashier excursions, is much chastened, and only occasionally falls into swooning simile….
Several things go wrong, though. First, people crack up in the country (and in this novel) too, and since Gardner, like most writers, is more at home with people cracking up than he is with people just going about their humdrum business, the contrast between city and country begins to pale a bit. Second, the traffic between sophisticated writers and simple lives can go only one way. You can show, that is, how complex simple lives are when you look at them closely, and here as in The Sunlight Dialogues Gardner does this well. What you can't show, if you're a complicated writer, is how simple simplicity is. All you can offer is a set of mirror images of your own complication. Then again, you can show how simple people delve into metaphysics in their own language, and Gardner, again, does this rather well. I don't think you can presume, with any success, to render their obscure states of mind in your own grand, speculative manner….
Here as in his other fiction, Gardner shows a marvelous gift for making stories ask balanced, intricate questions, for getting his complex questions into tight stories…. (p. 22)
Michael Wood, in The New York Review of Books (reprinted with permission from The New York Review of Books; copyright © 1974 NYREV, Inc.), March 21, 1974.
I happen to like The Sunlight Dialogues, perhaps because I am fond of magicians, and the novel's moving force is a lunatic illusionist. But although the characters are thoughtfully drawn and the scenes work well, the book does provoke the same doubt raised by such mighty works as, for instance, Barth's Giles Goat-Boy: namely, whether the author has assembled fictional engines unnecessarily huge and powerful for the ideas that are to be moved about the stage.
Nickel Mountain is quite another matter. It is gentle and pastoral—meaning, I suppose, that all the beasts in its country landscape are tame and that the reader can afford to dream a bit without worrying that he will be savaged. The author knows exactly, of course, the restful calm he has created, and the very strong attraction of the novel lies in the art with which Gardner guides the dreaming. (p. 1)
The effect of the novel is astonishingly strong. The characters have been criticized for being vague and unrealized, but this, I think, misses the point. Gardner's intention, it seems clear, is to portray time, the strange slow drift in which we are all carried along. It is not that events do not have meaning, or that we do not sometimes see ourselves and others with sharp understanding. But time's huge flow is so utterly mysterious, the author seems to be saying, that smaller mysteries and perceptions blur and become reverie. There is nothing in the least arcane or literary in this haunting sense of time's movement; a boy can feel it as he lies on his back in meadow grass listening to crickets and an old man can feel it thinking of the boy. Gardner has caught the mystery in this simple and mysterious novel.
Gardner himself, on the contrary, is not yet caught. His remarkable progression of novels does not seem to have defined his limits. There is no evidence that he is merely a talented dabbler in different modes, or less than a whole-hearted artist. (p. 4)
Jack Skow, "Time's Slow Reverie," in Book World—The Washington Post (© The Washington Post), March 31, 1974, pp. 1, 4.
[The] beautiful hues of Gardner's New York State landscape and the auras emanating from his leading characters [in Nickel Mountain] … appear to be more the function of the viewer's lenses than of the things and people themselves.
Forty years ago, William Empson dismissed such writing as a form of pastoral…. In a book that he calls "a pastoral novel," John Gardner has attempted once again the paradoxical task of speaking for the speechless and feeling for the numbed. But he does so by meeting Empson's objections directly, dispensing with the traditional methods of realism and returning to the root form of such narratives. Thus he does not attempt to test the values of the class he writes about but, rather, of the class to which he belongs and for whom he writes. (p. 759)
No page of Nickel Mountain lacks the imprint of [his] fulsome prose in which highly colored natural description takes precedence over questions of human psychology and narrative action. The effect is, moreover, closer to lyric than epic, scene after painted scene linked in the reader's mind by virtue of the feelings engendered by Gardner's moving descriptions rather than any logical connections between one notation about a character and the next. Despite carefully planted assurances that by the end of the novel Soames has "discovered … the idea of magical change," no transformations of character or action have occurred. Thus, while the setting of Nickel Mountain resembles that of Gardner's The Sunlight Dialogues …, no scene could be further removed from the fields where order struggled with chaos and time with decay. Here thought vaporizes and metaphysics shrivels into the plodding sententiousness of Henry Soames pulling off his socks at the end of a day and "wondering what it all meant."
Each of Gardner's previous novels does in fact present itself, as well as any novel can, as a dramatization of "what it all means," and each concludes with the death of the main character as if to suggest that death—and the endings of novels—stand as the final response to all conjecture about meaning. In the last chapter of Nickel Mountain, Gardner leads Henry Soames to the edge of a grave. But he cannot make him die. Although Soames has a "heart condition" and feels "as old as the mountains," the range to which he compares himself is the fairy-tale chain in a region where death has no dominion. In his world without end, only the prose lives, flares up, flickers, fumes, and finally gutters out. Gardner has presented us with the final version of pastoral. (p. 760)
Alan Cheuse, in The Nation (copyright 1974 by the Nation Associates, Inc.), June 15, 1974.
With seven books published in the past five years, Novelist John Gardner, has confounded the theory that quality can only come slowly, and in small doses. Gardner … has managed to lob serious, stylistically adventuresome fiction over the barricades of academic coteries and onto the middle levels of America's bestseller lists. He is also a fabulist with a heart, capable of making the arcane both accessible and emotionally stirring. Near the end of The King's Indian, Gardner briefly introduces himself as a man who, "with the help of Poe and Melville and many another man, wrote this book." The attributions are graceful but hardly necessary, for Poe and Melville rattle around in this book like a couple of dybbuks. Gardner seems possessed by their eagerness to stare into the black holes of transcendental optimism, and two of his nine tales flatter the 19th century authors with unabashed imitation.
In The Ravages of Spring a middle-aged country doctor on a round of house calls finds himself threatened by a string of tornadoes. He seeks shelter in a clapboard-gothic house and lands in the middle of a Vincent Price movie. It includes a mad scientist, a demented, beautiful woman and a terrible secret: through genetic tinkering, the scientist claims to have discovered how to populate the world with exact duplicates of himself and his companion. Solipsism teeters toward the edge of reality. The storm explodes the house like an inflated hypothesis, but the doctor survives—and so, in a way, does the scientist.
The King's Indian, the title story, is a much longer and more complex pastiche. Shanghaied aboard a whaling ship, young Jonathan Upchurch is forced to play Ishmael to a crazed Ahab of a captain. The ship's quest is not for a white whale but, as Upchurch slowly learns, for the mysterious duplicate of itself, reported sunk on its last voyage. Is he surrounded, then, by ghosts? Or is the captain out to smash determinism by carrying his ship safely past a meeting with its foreshadowed self? As adventures and mysteries multiply, a third possibility begins to appear: a hoax, launched by a vaudeville magician, swelling out of control, may be engulfing both perpetrators and dupes alike….
Gardner does not restrict himself to century-old American settings. He is also at home in classical antiquity (Jason and Medea) and the late Dark Ages (Grendel). He fills pages with royalty and serfs, knights, monks, prisoners and jailers. Magic is taken for granted; humble facts are made to seem miraculous. A lesser writer might stretch the profligate inventiveness of this single book into a long career.
Gardner uses exuberant creations in the service of a stern task: to sneak up on truth without startling it into sham abstractions. As one of his characters says: "The part [of life] we understand is irrelevant." So Gardner sets conflicting metaphysics whirling, then records the patterns thrown out by their lines of force. One situation constantly recurs, as it did in Gardner's ambitious The Sunlight Dialogues: traditionalist meets anarchist; an inherited past must defend itself against a plotless future. In Pastoral Care, a young minister tries to remind his complacent congregation of Christianity's revolutionary roots. A bomb-tossing student takes him at his word, graphically reminding his appalled mentor of the etymology of the word radical.
Gardner knows that such bedrock dualities never change and are never resolved. He also shows that they can crop up anywhere, in the most mundane or marvelous of forms, and that stories can preserve more of their truths than battle reports from competing ideologies. His stories—fanciful, allusive, studded with archaisms ("erumpent," "zacotic," "flambuginous")—are diverting jaunts around central mysteries. With Gardner as tour guide, getting there is all the fun.
Paul Gray, "American Gothic," in Time (reprinted by permission from Time, The Weekly Magazine; copyright Time Inc.), December 30, 1974, p. 56.
[Five] stories, all somber in tone, make up "The Midnight Reader," which is followed [in The King's Indian] by three "Tales of Queen Louisa," spoofs of love and war in a medieval setting. "The King's Indian" itself is an amazing novella which incorporates elements from The Rime of the Ancient Mariner, Moby Dick, The Narrative of Arthur Gordon Pym, and much else—in line with Gardner's evident belief that the problems that plague us have persisted throughout history. (p. 1)
These are excellent stories. Nobody writing today is better than Gardner at clothing the idea in flesh. Nonetheless, there is something about The King's Indian—the amount of sleight-of-hand, perhaps, or the fact that the characters' concerns are so exclusively philosophical—that keeps it from having the impact of its literary antecedents. [But] Gardner himself [is] aware of the dangers of playfulness…. (pp. 1-2)
Gardner's chief value, one suspects, is less that of the individual artist—the Poe or Melville or Kafka or Dostoevsky sunk in his own life and theorizing with desperate, often naive, seriousness—than that of the intellectual, in touch with a tradition, who is skilled enough to connect us with the past. And in an age of lost traditions and broken connections, this is indeed a considerable value. (p. 2)
Michael Harris, "A Limitless Shadow," in Book World—The Washington Post (© The Washington Post), January 12, 1975, pp. 1-2.
The stories in The King's Indian allow John Gardner to put on a variety of narrative masks, from that of teller of hip fairy tales about anxiety, madness, and marital strain to jaunty impersonations of Poe, Kafka, Melville, and John Gardner. And of course the beauty of masks is that they can come off whenever an effect is required. For example, "John Napper Sailing Through the Universe," a tale of la vie bohème centered on an artist with the same name as the illustrator of Gardner's Sunlight Dialogues, is told by a narrator named—like a good many other people in the book—John, a college teacher who like Professor John Gardner lives on a farm in southern Illinois and is writing an epic poem about Jason and Medea….
I wish Gardner weren't so eager to join the game of self-conscious fiction. Insisting on the arbitrariness of illusions puts all the cards in the novelist's hand, and I feel a little surly about Gardner's assumption that I, the reader, am safely "real" (how can he be so sure?) while letting me see that "John Gardner the man that … wrote this book" is just another disguise of a trickster who, like any teacher, has reserved the real power for himself.
It's not inevitably a bad thing for a novelist to teach in a college and know a lot about literature and modern thought. One of the best stories here, "Pastoral Care," takes place in a college town in southern Illinois beset by revolutionary student unrest. To be sure, the troubled protagonist is a clergyman, not a teacher, but the professions have their resemblances. Elsewhere the voices are those of a literate country doctor, a medieval monk, a prison administrator, a smart parent amusing his kids with more than they're likely to grasp; and in all these clerkish voices one hears an academic man trying out hypothetical other selves in situations in which a literary education can exercise itself to greater effect than it usually does on campus.
Gardner's Grendel and Sunlight Man were deracinated professors, too, speculative minds placed in situations whose hostility or indifference provided a splendid tragi-comic stage for eloquent failure. And Nickel Mountain, his most restrained and best novel, has fine moments in which "ordinary" people are granted the emotional equivalent of intellectual subtlety, moments that work because self-consciousness and self-irony are not attached to them.
Nothing in The King's Indian matches these successes. The recurrent motif is craziness, not the depressing madness of the real world but in the more amusing sense of "crazy" that in bookish conversation (like "marvelous," "incredible," and "unbelievable") simply means exciting and imaginative….
Much of this is made tolerable by Gardner's great gifts for language and moral atmosphere. But only in the title story, "The King's Indian" (referring, appropriately, to a chess gambit), is there anything like the amplitude of form and conception needed to keep Gardner's eloquence from swamping the fable….
Academic vaudeville can be good fun, and Gardner in these stories does play with classic American uneasiness, the mixture of fascination and mistrust toward portentous appearances, the yearning to strike through the mask even as you fear that there will, after all, be nothing much behind it. But The King's Indian is irksome in its reaching for the outrageous, the crazy, the (I'm afraid it must be said) cute, and I can only hope that it has done this immensely gifted writer some good to get these things out of his system. (p. 34)
Thomas R. Edwards, in The New York Review of Books (reprinted with permission from The New York Review of Books; copyright © 1975 NYREV, Inc.), February 20, 1975.
Though I admire John Gardner's talent, ambition, and inventiveness, I've never been able to warm up to his work. The author has what might be called a sweet tooth for philosophy. He is often so determined to inject philosophical dialogues, concepts, and references into his work that he will introduce them even if they break the mood of the tale he is telling, interrupt the action, appear totally absurd, pretentious, and contrived in context. For example, in Grendel, Gardner's clever, though at times stifling takeoff on the Beowulf story, the title character visits a dragon who speaks in the following manner: "Importance is primarily monistic in its reference to the universe. Limited to a finite individual occasion, importance ceases to be important." The reader is, of course, willing to accept the fantasy of the book and go along with the talking monster business, but must he contend with a dragon who sounds as if he's conducting a seminar in philosophy? Such a passage not only destroys the mood of the fiction (for we can only believe that the philosophic author is spouting these very carefully chosen words), but it also gives the piece a bloated quality.
Almost all of Gardner's books have suffered from this peculiar brand of inflation and heavy-handedness. Although the reader appreciated the meticulous rendering of small-town life in The Sunlight Dialogues, he couldn't accept the contrived philosophical tug of war between Sheriff Clumly and the Sunlight Man (whose at-the-drop-of-a-hat monologues were too artfully structured to be believed). Once again, in the poem Jason and Medeia, a long, misguided venture, Gardner's characters often became mere mouthpieces for their obsessively philosophic creator. Nickel Mountain, Gardner's next work, was almost a welcomed change of pace. In this somber rural tale focusing on an inarticulate outsider, the irritating philosophical passages were noticeably, mercifully absent. The novel really didn't work—it was too cold and studied and the characters never truly sprang to life—but at least it did promise a less pretentious Gardner to come.
Unfortunately, The King's Indian … is filled with the same type of self-indulgence that marred so many of his earlier efforts. And to make matters worse, there is in this collection of tales a good amount of still fashionable, though by now tedious, literary game-playing—in-jokes on narrative technique and the art of fiction, allusions to other writers and their work, the use of contemporary jargon in historical pieces…. The three stories dealing with mad Queen Louisa are supposed to be sparkling and witty, but come across as silly sketches tossed off by a professor between classes…. Of the two stories with a contemporary setting, "Pastoral Care" is the more accomplished and substantial. In fact, this refreshingly quiet piece, focusing on a Presbyterian minister's encounter with a student, shows that Gardner can do without his bag of tricks—the story is direct and effective.
Sadly, that bag of tricks is fully employed in the title story (a novella, actually) and the results are maddening. "The King's Indian" is a huge crazy comic invention in which a host of authors are evoked and parodied—Melville, Hawthorne, Poe, Coleridge, Charles Brockden Brown, to name only a few. Jonathan Upchurch's narrative, describing his voyage on a whaling ship populated by an insane cast of characters, is totally outrageous, containing enough twists and turns of plot, hoaxes, conspiracies, coincidences, to support dozens of tales. Gardner obviously had fun writing it, and I wish I could report that I had fun reading it. But one gets the idea soon enough, and the tale, for all its mad energy, rapidly becomes a bore. (pp. 234-35)
The King's Indian surprises me on two counts. One, that a writer of Gardner's sophistication could settle for such philosophical and literary doodling. And two, that so many critics could be charmed by the performance. This kind of encouragement Gardner surely does not need. (p. 235)
Ronald De Feo, "A Sweet Tooth for Philosophy," in National Review (© National Review, Inc., 1975; 150 East 35th St., New York, N.Y. 10016), February 28, 1975, pp. 234-35.
All but two of the stories in [The King's Indian] … are cast in specialized literary forms—fairy tales, allegory, sea yarns, gothic horror stories…. The first thing that strikes one in a reading of this and others of his derivative writings is Gardner's sly and exuberant affection for his literary models, coupled with his own meticulous craftsmanship and inventiveness. After a while, though, one begins to suspect that underneath all the razzle-dazzle and the fancy footwork rather less may be going on than meets the eye. Whether Gardner is in fact "celebrating" (as he puts it) the writers he imitates or merely playing around with them, his achievement suffers by the comparison; his piecemeal allegorical and symbolic schemes, lacking intelligible structure, come more and more to resemble, rather than to illuminate, the metaphysical mystery land through which he journeys. (pp. 25-6)
Jane Larkin Crain, in Saturday Review (copyright © 1975 by Saturday Review/World, Inc.; reprinted with permission), March 8, 1975.
Ever since 1971, when Grendel burst upon the scene, all "heaped-up howls of rage" and "monstrous energy of grief," John Gardner's books have erupted at frequent intervals with a mighty thump and glitter. Dazzled by the display, reviewers have stood at a safe distance, marveling at the chunks of pure poetry interspersed with interminable metaphysical ramblings, and murmuring, "O my! O my!" like Mole.
Stupefaction has been guaranteed, for not only does Gardner put on a good show, but he's a virtuoso, too. Grendel was a reworking of the Anglo-Saxon Beowulf; The Wreckage of Agathon a satire set in ancient Sparta; Jason and Medea an epic poem 354 pages long; The Sunlight Dialogues a vast, clotted meditation on the laws of the universe as demonstrated in upper New York State; Nickel Mountain a romantic pastorale that moved at a snail's pace.
Gardner's work consistently wins such extravagant praise that it looks as if people are responding to something more than the books themselves, which, for all their grand design, have moments of monumental unreadability…. The likeliest explanation for such unguarded optimism seems to be that, when so many current novels are just slick and sexy products or slapdash journalese, weary reviewers, homesick for literature, are seduced by Gardner's rampant writerishness: his obsession with form, his literary in-jokes and elaborate imitations.
In The King's Indian, a collection of eight short stories and a tale, this writerishness is more marked than before, which is terrific for those who want to feel reassured about the continuity of literary tradition, et cetera, and for devotees of genre writing (in particular ghost stories, horror stories, and sea yarns), but disappointing for everybody else. Four of the best stories are to be found under the heading "The Midnight Reader" and have, as central characters, a priest, a doctor, a monk, and the warden of a prison. By tradition, all of them are the guardians either of authority or of an established system of belief, which makes them powerfully symbolic figures. Each man is exposed to some uncanny threat, a sinister undermining of the foundations of his life, and by extension, society itself. It's Gardner's old preoccupation, seen most clearly in The Sunlight Dialogues—man's imposition of his own intellectual order on an indifferent, chaotic universe and his reluctance to face "reality." Here he borrows from Poe and Kafka to make "reality" especially terrifying. (pp. 3-4)
These stories have a certain eerie fascination but lose their effect because they're so self-consciously clever. Gardner does love to show off….
Short stories seem to bring out the worst in Gardner, for when he's not being arch, he's plunging headlong into romantic agony, and fretting tirelessly over the fact that life has no meaning…. Whoops and gasps and reels and shrieks worked in Grendel. They were thrillingly new, but used too often they're nothing more than good sound effects…. His whole stance, of one who has dared to peer into the void, begins to look like a spectacular but ham performance….
[An] essential part of Gardner's success [is] his relentless belief in the writer as hero or holy man, and the devastating hubris with which he demonstrates it. Such single-mindedness has its attractive aspects, and the pomposity that tends to accompany it has in the past been diluted in the comfortable narrative sprawl of his longer writing, or outshone by his poetry. But this time he has shown himself standing squarely center-stage, performing, haranguing, and lecturing, and never quite holding the crowd. (p. 4)
Helen Rogan, "Whoops and Gasps," in Bookletter (copyright 1975 by Harper's Magazine; reprinted from the April 14, 1975 issue by special permission), April 14, 1975, pp. 3-4.