John Napper Sailing Through the Universe Summary

John Gardner


(Comprehensive Guide to Short Stories, Critical Edition)

The narrator, a writer who teaches in a rural American university, is driven home from a party one night by his wife, Joan. Feeling old and perceiving death all around him, and goaded by his wife’s nostalgia for John Napper, a successful painter they once knew, the narrator tells the story of his and his family’s experience of the painter John Napper.

The narrator became acquainted with Napper when the latter served for a time as artist-in-residence at the narrator’s university. John Napper had a commanding physical presence despite his old age: bohemian, big, and energetic. His enthusiasm for everything—including Irish music, which he sang with zest, accompanying himself on a guitar—was unflagging. No intellectual debate fazed him: To both sides he would say, “Exactly” or “Marvelous” (his favorite words), impartially, as it were. For example, the narrator believes that Welsh music is better than Irish, and Napper would find his choice “marvelous,” while at the same time expressing—too jovially to be gainsaid—his distaste for Welsh music and his admiration for Irish music.

After Napper returns to Paris, the narrator’s wife finds herself unable to compose music and wants to visit Napper and his wife Pauline, a mosaic artist. The narrator, who always wears a black hat and has a cynical outlook on the world, and is both repelled and attracted by Napper’s optimism, as well as passionately hostile to any kind of fakery, manages to get a grant that finances his family’s visit to the Nappers.

They find a young couple staying in the Nappers’ Paris studio. The young man is an American, a cartoonist, and he shows the narrator and his wife some of John Napper’s old paintings, which he found under the bed. The paintings are violent and gloomy, in surprising contrast to the paintings of Napper’s old age, which invariably feature flowers. Learning that the Nappers are staying in London, the narrator and his family visit the Nappers in their apartment there.

When confronted by the information that the narrator has seen his old paintings in Paris, John Napper shows him a selection of similar paintings, mentioning that some of his works have been lost along the way. They are all pessimistic and foreboding. With his typical energy he judges his artistic past...

(The entire section is 955 words.)