Gardner, John (Vol. 7)
Gardner, John 1933–
Gardner, an American Old and Middle English scholar, a philosophical novelist and short story writer, and, with Jason and Medeia, an epic poet, has always demonstrated what George Stade called a "reverence for ancient forms and permanent truths." The Sunlight Dialogues, one of the most important novels of the seventies, was admired by one critic as the work of a "lunatic illusionist."
A serious case can be made for how little John Gardner resembles himself. Now he's an epic poet, now an epic novelist, now a medieval monster, now a simulated Poe or Melville. He is the latter two, and more, in [The King's Indian, a] collection of his short fiction, the title story a remarkable novella, full of marvels.
Gardner is the Lon Chaney of contemporary fiction, a writer without a personal psychography in his work. He seems sprung not from life but literature, history and ideas, a man making books with other books as a starting point, but a writer of enormous range and inventiveness. His prose is regal.
What he is is a splendid show-off. Look Ma, I'm Kafka. He is Kafka in "The Warden," a story of illusory life, which is the dominant theme of most of these stories and tales…. Gardner is not merely parodying The Trial and "In the Penal Colony" in this, but using their moods, their ambiguities, their bizarre ironies out of homage both to the stories and their inventor. With the theme of mute authority dictating men's destinies, Gardner does not improve on Kafka, but Kafka starts from him. (p. 19)
In "The Ravages of Spring" Gardner turns to Poe for framework and tone, writing elegant literary spookery…. The story is one of a mysterious house, tornado terror, a mad doctor, witchery and klones, all in support of Gardner's conclusion that "no work of evil men or devils is finally impressive compared with the vastness of the universe or the hopeful imagination," a bit of self-congratulation here, since Gardner is the most hopeful imagination at hand. He is never the tragedian. Evil folks do dastardly deeds all right, but they usually get theirs, and the goodbodies are still around at the finale.
The prime goodbody in this collection is John Napper, a painter from the story "John Napper Sailing Through The Universe." Gardner appears in this as another man named John, a poet writing an epic poem about Jason (a devilishly clever disguise: Gardner has also written an epic poem about Jason). But Gardner proves to be little more than a presence in the story, a pair of eyes to see John Napper descending into life's blackest, most despairing regions through his art, yet never ceasing to see the best side of all that life has to offer. "Marvelous" is Napper's vision of most things. Though this is a slight story which seems more like homage to a friend than competition for the other elaborate work in this collection, it suggests itself as one key to Gardner's psyche: he is not like Napper but he wishes he were.
"Pastoral Care" is a contemporary story in which Gardner, clutching the book of Jeremiah, sounds also very like John Cheever, as he plumbs suburban sophistry in a Presbyterian congregation.
Elsewhere he is also a fabulist, a teller of fairytales … [which] are amusing, fanciful, forgettable.
But unforgettable is "The King's Indian," the novella that ends the collection. The major frame for this bravura piece is Moby Dick, as told not only by Melville but also Poe again, Conrad, Stevenson, Wilde, Pirandello, Hawthorne and Ingmar Bergman, among others, the amalgam suffused with the surrealist muse.
The narrator is a grizzled ancient mariner named Jonathan Upchurch, who is in heaven, recounting his story … to a listener who turns out to be John Gardner by name. The frame is an antique device, which Gardner uses for presumably the same reasons he uses so many obsolescent and obscure words … to make this take a homemade museum of both language and literature.
The narrator and Gardner are finally an intrusion in the tale, not because of the device but because of Gardner's explanation just before the story's last gasp. He says that "with the help of Poe and Melville and many another man" he wrote this book, filled with doubts. But he adds that the book "is not a toy but a queer, cranky monument, a collage: a celebration of all literature and life; an environmental sculpture, a funeral crypt."
(Did he want to bury Melville? Perhaps. Be done with such an impossible hero once and for all.)
But these final lines are merely Gardner's uncertainty about what he had sculpted. He is a worrier, trying to avoid the judgment of others in advance. Will they really say he stole from Melville? How could they not? But will they know the theft had a purpose: flattering that grand spook with abject homage? How could he imagine they wouldn't know and approve?
The tale is so outlandish, so full of magic and the occult, so brimming with fraudulent visions and deceptive symbols and conversations with the Holy Ghost and hoaxes and illusions and the most outrageous coincidences, that it instantly explains to potentially miffed Melvilleans that Gardner is not propagating borrowed wisdom but only humble story…. [All] this is done with such verve and fraudulence and with such an outlandish concatenation of improbabilities … that no one could possibly accuse Gardner of venal literary piracy, only of joyful trickery.
Even the wisdom he does propagate between segments of his narrative is itself suspect, transplanted to that mystical whaler from Gardner's own overflowing rhetoric bank in order to give us yet another illusion—that this story means something. Melvillean rhetoric must mean something mustn't it?
Only the plot of this tale matters, standing as it does for that profoundest of human truths: that life is one god-damn thing after another. All other interpretations of this work are illusory. And if you believe that we can get on with the story. (pp. 19-20)
William Kennedy, in The New Republic (reprinted by permission of The New Republic; © 1974 by The New Republic, Inc.), December 7, 1974.
It's been several years since I first stumbled over a book by John Gardner. I dusted myself off, examined my bruises, and have been engaged ever since in a running debate. I run as I read, trying to escape, muttering literary objections, and Gardner pursues, snuffling and wild-eyed, hurling book after book. From time to time I glance back over my shoulder and observe that he's still got his fangs locked on something apparently foul and indigestible. It may very well be human, I reflect uneasily, but quite possibly it is only the stem of his pipe. (p. 1)
"Grendel," the revelations of a monster, is an eerie tour de force that manages to transmogrify the Old English epic of Beowulf into a modern English nightmare. Part of its astonishing force lies in the conception. It is the first story. My 5-year-old son plunked himself down at my typewriter one day and painstakingly typed out his first story. It was very short: "A monster came into my house."
Gardner gives us the soul of the monster, brooding on the philosophical torments of its position. He gives us the house—civilization itself—the great hall of Hrothgar. He takes us down into the subterranean world from which the monster arises, and brings us back, again and again, to the slaughter. The monster dies but he remains on the mind's retina, an afterglow, gleaming with subearthly radiance.
Nevertheless, while reading, I had doubts aplenty. The work seemed somehow unreliable, always interesting, even gorgeous, but not human. Not a novel. A myth in a pressure-cooker. A fiction in a Fryeing pan. The author, I too hastily assumed, must be a most extraordinary Beowulf scholar, and "Grendel" his pipedream.
I was unprepared for "The Sunlight Dialogues," aimed at me and striking. Here, for all its hocus-pocus, was a human chronicle, one demanding a genealogy and List of Characters (eighty-one!) and displaying a wealth of interlocking plots and scenes. A grand work. Yet top-heavy. That book-long debate between Clumly, the Man of Law, and his daemonic agonist, the Sunlight Man: was it not too carefully posed, staged and unconvincing? It hit me at last that the work had been conceived only partly as a novel and partly (ah, Gardner!) in another, more ancient tradition, still thriving since Plato: the Dialogue. This realization went far toward countering my objections, but not my discomfort at 673 pages of elaborated profundity (746 in the paperback edition).
"Nickel Mountain," his next work, had a gentler impact. By the meandering path of "A Pastoral," as he subtitled the book, Gardner had mounted to the broad highroad of fiction. He had, in fact, come that well-traveled way before. His first novel, "Resurrection," which I recently picked up with caution, was conventional enough, though immensely agitated by the Consolation of Philosophy and the preparations for dying. Now in "Nickel Mountain" he moved with an unexpected quietness, a high density of simple feeling, a longwave serenity of mood. The melancholy reflections of pastoral upstate New Yorkers were suddenly persuasive. Gardner the Trickster had effectively retired behind and within the work, placidly paring his claws.
Frankly, I felt safe, no longer threatened by monsters and daemons.
Now at last a volume of his shorter fiction has come to hand. "The King's Indian" is a collection which gives us, as a prism might, the spectrum of Gardner's vision from the infra-red of his Gothic horrors to the purple poses of his romantic realism. It is a handsome book, with illustrations that match the considerable beauty, detail and resourcefulness of the work. In Gardner's prose, darkening landscapes churn and fearful houses come clattering to ruins as in Poe. Inaccessible authority and bizarre injustice creak on as in Kafka. A queen can turn into a toad and a peasant lass into a princess as in Lewis Carroll and Grimm reality. And on the high seas of this raging art, a mutinous Bounty of a Wandering Dutchman can meet a wizard of Oz.
But hold on tight. "Life … is preposterous." So begins "The Ravages of Spring," the second tale in this collection. How preposterous that the narrator should tell us this at all, though his banality is self-confessed. Yet how right that word is for Gardner's world. Not absurd, but preposterous. It's absurd to be tossed in a single story "from one sphere of reality to another," but it is downright preposterous to be nudged at the same time from one sphere of fiction to another. (pp. 1-2)
For all the author's seriousness,… a playfulness, often dreadfully Romantic—an uppercase Agony—flits in and out of his text…. Possibly, some of the tales may be journeyman's work, the sorcerer's apprentice on his way to becoming a master. In others, the mastery dazzles and the magic is black.
"The King's Indian," which lends its title to the volume as a whole,… is John Gardner's most rambunctious work to date, as long as "Grendel" and rivaling it in ingenuity, if not obsession. In a tavern we overhear an ancient mariner. From there we set off on a mysterious whaling voyage. At first the ghostly accents in the cellarage of the narrative and the hold of the ship are Coleridge's and Melville's (not only "Moby Dick," but "Benito Cereno," "Billy Budd," "The Confidence Man" and so on). Then ominous waves begin to rock the boat—Stevenson, Conrad, Twain, Shakespeare, Homer—the vast literature of the sea, of necromancy, of hoaxes. Gardner's voyage makes its way through a tempest of literary refractions that almost capsizes, but never quite sinks, the most outrageous sea yarn this side of Jules Verne and the Sargasso Sea….
New writers are expected to stand on the shoulders of earlier ones. Some of them, however, prefer to place a couple of bodies of earlier work on their lap, manipulate the dummies, and speak with their predecessors' voices. They become literary ventriloquists: Mann, for instance, in "The Holy Sinner" and Joyce through enormous sections of "Ulysses." This preference may be unusual, but it is neither unique nor perverse….
In my own judgment, Gardner is in many places too cunning for his own good. He is a virtuoso, roguish, fluent, self-indulgent. But elsewhere the undeniable power of his imagination transcends the question of his method altogether. Collages or not, bamboozling or not, his ventriloqual fictions do suddenly grow nerves and breathe with an awesome, independent life. Often when he throws his voice, I respond like the crew aboard the whaler who are mesmerized by the villain. An unwilling suspension of disbelief grips me—I must believe—until the villain snaps his fingers to remind me that he is John Gardner.
Which brings me at last to the first piece in this new volume. "Pastoral Care" is not a tale, not a pastiche, not a trick, but a straightforward contemporary story, enormously appealing, about the encounter between an up-to-the-minute Presbyterian minister and the perfect monster for our time, the idealistic student. This work will stand comparison with the standard great stories of contemporary fiction. What more could one ask? Well, might one not ask with respect whether it is too much like those other great stories? I don't mean a reasonable facsimile. I mean an unreasonably flawless item in a highly developed genre. Yet in that sense predictable. For what of its impact? As the blows fall, their shocks are easily recognized: their direction, their significance, their very form. In the midst of the usual epiphany I found myself longing for the complex litanies and amazing grace of his voices and mirrors. I felt comfortable with the story. There was no menace. And I kept on wishing he would bare those literary fangs of his, a bit forced perhaps, but grinding away at reality. (p. 2)
Alan Friedman, in The New York Times Book Review (© 1974 by The New York Times Company; reprinted by permission), December 15, 1974.
John Gardner tells stories. A hundred years ago he might have been a great popular novelist, serious in the way popular novelists then could be. As it is, his story-telling is mixed with a good deal of philosophizing, solemn and playful, and with a lot of modern post-narrative self-consciousness. In a very few years he has tried an astonishing number of fictional modes, each time working from a strong narrative tradition, each time questioning it, each time returning. (p. 291)
Gardner writes faster than I can read; faster, I'm beginning to believe, than anyone but the early Dickens, who managed to write three novels at the same time and edit a monthly journal on the side.
No doubt Gardner has Dickensian ambitions, but where Dickens was a genuinely popular writer, Gardner is a professor. No doubt also, on the evidence of the novels, he is a remarkably learned and good one; but as a writer he not only earns the rewards, he pays the price of professing. Dickens could unselfconsciously make myths out of the materials of a popular culture in which he participated. Gardner makes, or rather unmakes, myths out of the materials of a very high culture playing about the pop; almost every word he writes seems to bear upon it the scar of the past of Western literary culture. He is cursed, or blessed, by a characteristic modern literary consciousness.
What writer we might care about these days isn't? Barth, Borges, Nabokov, Pynchon, Coover. But with Gardner it is a little different. Though literary virtuosity is almost a condition of serious writing these days, though literary games are both part of the sport and part of what really counts, Gardner plays the game most of the time with a straight-forwardness that makes me feel—happily and uneasily at once—that the real name of his game is narrative. Even as he includes (in all of the stories I have read) elements to undercut the traditions of narrative he uses, each story depends for its strength and energy on the suspect narrative itself. So he gives us a gallery of nihilistic philosophers, of magicians and sleight-of-hand people. And always, somewhere behind the continuous sequence of actions, there is a bomb of meaninglessness waiting to explode the mythic significances just as we are getting comfy with them.
Still, enduring behind nihilism, meaninglessness, violent disruptions, there is Gardner saying yes, winking a bit shyly, and wall-eyed at the embarassment of saying it under the burden of all that knowledge. And I think the effort to say yes is the clue to the strange way his apparently very modern perceptions of narrative-as-lie, of inanity, of inconsecutiveness seem to be edging backwards, not to parody and rejection, but to affirmation and acceptance of the narrative-epic-novelistic tradition. The way to come out smiling (or almost) is, after you've shown that you understand all the limits, all the falsifications and mistaken assumptions, to end by writing your own crazy narrative, to assimilate without mockery the elements of such traditional fiction that can survive the curse of professorship and disenchantment.
I confess to liking Gardner best when the play is most overt, not, as in The Sunlight Dialogues, where the epic pretensions are too great, too serious, and too long. Like the other Gardner novels, it is a virtuoso performance, though Gardner pretends in it that the real virtuosity is that of the Sunlight Man, the tortured and scarred magicianhero. If Grendel is parody of epic, with the point of view deliberately screwed around, and Nickel Mountain is new pastoral, The Sunlight Dialogues is a late nineteenth century chronicle novel—a cross between The Rainbow and Buddenbrooks. It's about the decline of a great family, and in opposition to the Sunlight Man, the family's crazed, brilliant, nihilist black sheep, there is the requisite anti-hero, a flatulent, apparently ineffectual and aging police chief. The book's center is a set of dialogues between the chief and the Sunlight Man. Elaborately and fancifully staged amidst hocus-pocus, they are filled with classical allusions, subversive moralizing, or anti-moralizing, tests of the ordinary man's strength. Inarticulate or cliché-ridden, the police chief endures. But it is all virtuosity; and within a novel whose structure depends upon a nineteenth-century personal engagement with characters, it gets rather dull. The professorial identity is most oppressive where it is most hidden. There's just a bit too much myth-making or anti-mythmaking. The farting police chief and his blind wife don't carry the day or sustain our engagement, though the narrative seems to insist that they must.
But there's no denying the virtuosity, indeed, the brilliance of much of that large book. And its audacity in attempting a New York State version of Faulkner's Mississippi chronicles is at least admirable. Nickel Mountain once again requires the nouns: virtuosity, brilliance, audacity. It reads as though it had been invented to become an instant classic: short, well-made, ironic, gently evocative of a pastoral mode which its own materials would seem to belie. Here is the pastoral of the truck stop, with large diesels always roaring dangerously in the background, with massive tractors for plowing and reaping and tearing their passengers to pieces, with wars in the not too remote distance sending home their maimed. But Gardner incorporates all the violence and industrial destruction into the mock pastoral retreat in order to reaffirm the values of the pastoral and to tell a story—really—of redemption through love. And it's not even embarassing. (pp. 291-93)
It may be a merely modern prejudice, but Gardner's art seems to work much better when the play is less disguised in the trappings of the realistic fiction of The Sunlight Dialogues and Nickel Mountain and more on the surface of the language itself, as in Grendel and in the extraordinary long title story of the new volume, The King's Indian. Serious playfulness is Gardner's real talent. Grendel seems to have achieved the stature of a modern classic—at least in so far as it represents a commitment to parody and dark comedy and something like nihilism in a short, fully achieved form. Anyway, Grendel is very funny and curiously moving; maybe because Gardner is bound there by the terms of his parody to be unselfconsciously engaged with its hero. Grendel does all the telling, and he puts Gardner's preoccupations immediately on the surface of the fiction. The game—the parody of epic and, therefore, of epic implications—is the heart of the narrative, in form and substance. Gardner's novels can be very talky, and if the dramatic context for the speculative talk is not itself either funny or exciting, the speculation gets a little boring, no matter how clever. Here the talk, unlike that of the Sunlight Man, is perfectly right.
Gardner works very hard at context. Grendel uses the sophisticated traditions of realistic narrative to spoof the heroic context of Grendel's world; at the same time, the context spoofs realistic narrative. And all that spoofing finally cancels itself out, in bewilderingly funny ways, until we are left only with the wonderful imaginative energy of the invention itself—which is precisely where the book wants to take us. Who, after all, would have thought to see Beowulf's story from the perspective of his enemy, Grendel, but a Lubbockian gone slightly mad? And who but Grendel (and a modern scholar of Old English) could begin to see the nobly austere world of mead-halls and spear-Danes as self-serving, petty, corrupt, and, worst of all, frightened. In Nickel Mountain Gardner plays with old-fashioned problems of point of view for new purposes, but here the play seems almost for its own sake, and it becomes delightfully generative. A backwards bildungs-roman (Gardner always does force us to see the literary context), Grendel grows to a self-destructive cynicism. (pp. 293-94)
The melange of fantasy, parody, philosophy, theories of imagination, works beautifully, so beautifully that I suppose I care more for Grendel than for any other Gardner character. Monstrously dying alone in the woods, he cries for his "Mama." And his last words form a curse to our very pleasures in reading it: "Poor Grendel's had an accident," he says, "So may you all."
Having tried just about everything else in the way of story telling, Gardner gives us, in The King's Indian, a volume of short stories and a novella. All of them are more or less overtly autobiographical, or are made to seem that way; and without really telling us much about him (except what I guess his friends would pick up) they nevertheless ring true. They are full of professorial fun, cloaked in science fiction or gothic horror or fairy tale. And yet each of them has a central figure who seems very Gardnerish. (p. 295)
In their brevity and in their more or less obvious and deliberate evocation of Poe, Kafka, Browning, medieval romance, and science fiction, these stories are all fairly effective. But the book gets much better as Gardner's manifestations become more and more wildly fanciful, less and less disguised in the clothing of the real. The second set of three stories is pure fantasy, playing with the narrative traditions of the fairy tale, transmogrifications and heroic rescues, reminding us of the arbitrariness of sequence and characterization, and, of course, of Alice in Wonderland. The insane and beautiful Queen Louisa invents a family and a world, happy (except for occasional lapses into a toad) in the midst of playful violence and horror which purports to be sane and obeys quite arbitrary rules.
But the novella, "The King's Indian," may be the best thing Gardner has done so far. It is so dazzlingly literary, so promiscuously allusive and parodic, that it would seem impossible to take the narrative seriously. But Gardner's ultimate virtuosity is that while making fun of some of the central narratives of the last two hundred years, he has to bring us up short at the end of every section in order to disengage us from the mere story, to force us to face the fact that there are other larger issues. It is the work of an effective Sunlight Man, of a real trickster whose tricks are his real subject. (pp. 295-96)
The story is full of the staple elements of Gardner's fictions: the magician, the materialistic cynic, the redemptive power of love. Particularly, it is a desperately funny and simply desperate struggle to make narrative work beyond all embarassment; and it is built on the faith that narrative is the way to say yes to life. (p. 296)
Gardner is faced with the problems of many of the best writers of our time: how to work in a medium for which their imaginations thirst—in a kind of dead sea—but which everything they know makes them distrust. In allowing himself to play these wild games out in the open, to temper his half-embarassed solemnities with arch professorial and obscene jokes, Gardner may be getting close to honoring his own best instincts as a writer. Still healthily afraid of making sense of appearances, myths of his stories, it's certain Gardner wants to do it. Even if the Holy Ghost is obscene, he is some kind of spirit. As the hero of the Browningesque story earlier in the book suggests, "It's nerve-wracking business, knight-errantry." Still, Gardner is doing his knight-errant's trick almost everywhere in this volume. Now if he can only continue being open about the games he plays…. (p. 297)
George Levine, "The Name of the Game," in Partisan Review (copyright © 1975 by Partisan Review, Inc.), Vol. XLII, No. 2, 1975, pp. 291-97.
From The Resurrection on, the central situation of Gardner's novels is this: a philosopher realizes that he is going to die. And the consequent, archetypal plot of his novels becomes the passionate debate of systems against the knowledge of death, the welter of conflicting metaphysics which, though they do not avail against the primal void, nevertheless illuminate, in their very self-contradiction, the instinctive and terrible duty of the mind to thread and humanize that void, even with lies. (p. 301)
The landscape of Grendel, like the landscape of Barth's best fiction, is that of ventriloquized epic: the narrator assumes, and in assuming, parodies, the self-confident voice we associate with the certainties of classical epic and the daemonic assertiveness of epic heroes. It is a purification of our fictive language, then, by the antithetical assumption of a narrative speech which implies all the powers our age so deeply lacks.
Gardner's completion and antithesis of the Blakean formula with which we began is this: we must create, not a system but a way of inhabiting the infinity of systems which are our birthright and our curse, or be enslaved—not by another man's system but by the paralytic consciousness of all systems as other; we must, in other words, locate a fiction which will allow us to utter words like "honor" and "courage," even though we knew that those words can never appear outside their inverted commas. (pp. 301-02)
Nothing prospers but the soul, as Gardner has said. But that prosperity itself, mythicized more severely and creatively in Jason and Medeia than in any other contemporary fiction, is implicit with the making and unmaking, resurrection and repeated death, which is the common history of cities, languages, and stories. The serpents, once city-founders and now Lady and Lord of the Dead, who breed over the action of Gardner's epic, are complemented by his most archetypal—perhaps the archetypal—blind man, the Oedipus who inherited the civilization forged by Kadmos and Harmonia and destroyed it through the self-binding fire of his own lucidity.
Gardner's Jason is another monster slayer in middle age, tormented by the noonday devils of declining faith in his own rationality and the nagging sense that his great quest, the voyage of Argo, in fact marked the end of the heroic era and the beginning of a diminished, more difficult and dangerous age of statecraft, moral canniness, measured defeats and measured triumphs. The cataclysmic end of his love for Medeia is, above all, the end of a marriage, of a human world and therefore of the world; but it is also, in its very violence, a reaffirmation of the dignity, even if fictive and earth-breaking, of human love. Gardner's befuddled narrator, caught between our world and the world of myth we witness along with him, reenacts at every point in his tale the paradox of the Lord of the Dead, the serpent whose existence makes possible as it cancels our dream of human cities. And, as a book whose language presents itself as a translation of itself—simultaneously its own voice and "another man's" system—Jason and Medeia becomes a metaphor for its own deepest vision. For this language, at once original and "derivative," is an icon of the ancient serpent ouroboros, the world-snake with its tail in its mouth, the cyclic history which is our perennial fall into the delusions and accomplishments of human time, human mortality, and human decency. (pp. 302-03)
Frank McConnell, in TriQuarterly 33 (© 1975 by Northwestern University Press), Spring, 1975.
John Gardner … in Nickel Mountain seems to have written that unlikely thing just now, a novel based on traditional moral frameworks, tentatively Christian. He's got the same interest [as Philip Roth and Joseph Heller] in America's anti-values, failure and weakness life on the periphery, but they have their traditional Christian position, the weakness of Peter, how you recognise the human. In the traditional Christian way, too, they're what lead you to love, brotherhood and God. It's through weakness and failure that you find warmth, recognize who you are and who your brother is, see your need for mercy and forgiveness, and thus everyone's, and feel the beginnings of sacramental consciousness. You can't live without getting your hands red, but this is a forgiving universe. (pp. 109-10)
The novel started for me with a bad clang, as if straight from a creative writing course.
In December, 1954, Henry Soames would hardly have said his life was just beginning. His heart was bad, business at the Stop-Off had never been worse, he was close to a nervous breakdown.
Worse, as I anticipated, we were off into the supreme theme of art, television and cinema: the middle-aged man and the teenager. The young daughter of a neighbour comes to work for him, she gets pregnant by a student, and Henry makes an honest woman of her. But of course the plot of My Life as a Man is no better. It's not what you do, it's the way that you do it.
In fact, as the plot develops it brings in some unfamiliar material and some unglamorous characters in a way a potboiler wouldn't. One of the main centres of concern is a smelly old Jehovah's witness, who's also part of America. There's no way of listing the details of this novel and making it sound interesting, and yet it is. Partly this is due to good narrative power deriving a great deal from Faulkner. But chiefly the author has loved these people, however unprepossessing, understood them and seen the rhythms of growth in them.
People try to help in this book, sometimes succeed, sometimes fail badly…. Throughout it all a religious debate's going on in action, just occasionally in words, about practical Christianity and theoretical Christianity, evil and guilt. Most of the characters, in realizing they're not God—and therefore not the Judge—begin to lose their guilt in humility.
It'd be a nice solution for Peter Tarnopol and Bob Slocum. Somehow I can't see them making it, though. Nevertheless, dear as my shreds of sophistication are to me, John Gardner does seem, on balance, to have the edge on wisdom. It's just possible that if it's guilt that makes us into gauleiters and victims, what we most need is a belief in forgiveness. Anyway, I enjoyed this book. The others are more dazzling; this is more healing. (p. 110)
Herbert Lomas, in London Magazine (© London Magazine 1975), October/November, 1975.
The King's Servant is a loose collection of novellas, the point of which comes somewhere towards the close: "And you are real, reader, and so am I, John Gardner the man that, with the help of Poe and Melville and many another man, wrote this book. And this book, this book is no child's top either—though I write, more than usual, filled with doubts. Not a toy but a queer, cranky monument, a collage: a celebration of all literature and life; an environmental sculpture, a funeral crypt." It is very unwise to jot down this sort of thing, especially if it happens to be true. It makes the actual writing of the book unnecessary, even when the book is as parodic and overblown as this one. The first stories in the collection languish under the title of 'The Midnight Reader' and they do tend to drag their feet in the trail of American Gothic. Four of them—'Pastoral Care,' 'The Warden,' 'The Ravages of Spring,' 'John Napper Sailing Through The Universe'—smack, in more ways than one, of the midnight oil; they are all chronicles of diseased and tortured souls stumbling through the well-known snares of reality and illusion, guilt and supernature…. Gardner's is a crumbling world, full of sudden torrents, whirlwinds and sheet lightning. In other words, it is part of a highly literary scenario full of consciously archaic diction, novelettish reminiscences and allusions to the sublime, if not to the beautiful.
The title-story of the collection is the longest and no doubt the most significant. It is in a similar vein, except that Mr Gardner's gothic longueurs and mythopeic illusions are pressed into the service of something which reads very much like an allegory. For here is the narrator, a compulsive liar and weaver of frantic personal histories, upon a magic ship where strange shapes and freaks of fancy are conjured up by Dr Flint and his absurd daughter, Miranda. The question to which all this flummery is leading must go something like "What is untruth?" But only a very patient reader will stay for an answer. (p. 572)
Peter Ackroyd, in The Spectator (© 1975 by The Spectator; reprinted by permission of The Spectator), November 1, 1975.
John Gardner seems to have studied the past rather as Eliot studied the poetry and drama of the past, to incorporate relevant tradition with contemporary insight and language. In his collection of stories The King's Indian he explicitly revives the styles of Poe and Melville, ideas culled from The Ancient Mariner and Kafka; but the resulting work has a personal, original and modern stamp. These are stories, including fairy tales, in which man, to cite Alain, is 'an enigma in motion.' Gardner describes miraculous things which we accept as credible; he makes the marvelous an everyday occurrence and yet exciting. He rarely intrudes with explication, leaving the reader to interpret strange events in his own way, so that he discovers that what appeared extraordinary, almost beyond the frontier of credibility, has the impact and impression of reality. (p. 74)
H. B. Mallalieu, in Stand (copyright © by Stand), Vol. 17, No. 2, 1976.