October Light

(Literary Masterpieces, Volume 19)

John Gardner, whose previous works have wedded fancy to fact and myth to metaphysics, offers such a union again in this, his new novel. In it, he combines the elements of the earlier works that earned him a literary reputation of considerable stature. The philosophical complexity and existential questioning of The Sunlight Dialogues appear here in full measure. Blended well into this new novel are also the literary skill, echoes, and knowledge of The King’s Indian, his 1974 collection of short stories. Finally, the simple realism of Nickel Mountain finds its way into Gardner’s new novel.

This novel, his eighth work, consolidates Gardner’s reputation as a major writer. Having earned that reputation with works of wide diversity and undisputed merit, including Resurrection (his first novel), The Wreckage of Agathon, Grendel, Jason and Medeia, and the above-mentioned three, Gardner offers October Light as a measuring stick of his maturation as a writer and of the growth of his concept of fiction. The novel’s eclectic assemblage of ideas and elements from earlier works—both his and those of others—is a testament to the sophistication of the work and the writer.

October Light is primarily concerned with the American character, with observing in detail its traits and characteristics. Gardner turns a simultaneously critical and sympathetic eye towards these traits, examining them each as separate entities and as integral parts of the whole. He examines the American sense of tradition, its emphasis on values, its sense of both equality and superiority, its belief in free enterprise and the freedom to amass wealth, its obstinacy, its belief in principle, and its belief in the morality of labor. Noting the conflicting nature of many of these traits, Gardner presents them, nonetheless, and the resulting paradoxes help imbue his characters with realism and credibility. In October Light, Gardner’s characters are human above all, earning both our admiration and our pity.

On the simplest of terms, this novel concerns the relationship between James L. Page and his older sister, Sally Page Abbott. James, a widower of seventy-two, finds his life changed by the return of Sally to his house to live, a return made necessary by the exigencies of her financial situation. A firm believer in traditional values and a man of the most conservative political opinions, James finds the foundations of his beliefs shaken and the basis of his opinions challenged. This challenge to his way of life comes not so much from his sister as it does from the things she represents and the things of the world outside of James’s home that she brings with her, most notably, television.

For James, television is both obscene and ungodly. It represents the temptation of the devil and the desires of the flesh. It encourages greed and violence. He sees TV game shows as blasphemy and high treason, and television dramas as an outrage against sense. He had told Sally in the beginning that she could come and live with him, but that she could not bring her television. Defying him, she brings it, and, finally, when he has been pushed to his limit, James loads his shotgun and shoots the television without warning.

Following the shooting of the television, he and Sally continue an argument for some three weeks—an argument growing out of their diametrically opposed ideas and out of their competing efforts to gain a certain provincial control over some element of their relationship. Finally, James again feels forced into an unalterable course of action. In a cold rage at what he considers the stupidity of Sally’s opinions, he picks up a piece of firewood...

(The entire section is 1530 words.)

October Light Bibliography

(Masterpieces of American Literature)

Butts, Leonard. The Novels of John Gardner: Making Life Art as a Moral Process. Baton Rouge: Louisiana State University Press, 1988. Butts draws his argument from Gardner himself, specifically On Moral Fiction (that art is a moral process), and discusses the ten novels in pairs, focusing on the main characters as either artists or artist figures who to varying degrees succeed or fail in transforming themselves into Gardner’s “true artist.” As Butts defines it, moral fiction is not didactic but instead a matter of aesthetic wholeness.

Chavkin, Allan, ed. Conversations with John Gardner. Jackson: University Press of Mississippi, 1990. Reprints nineteen of the most important interviews (the majority from the crucial On Moral Fiction period) and adds one never-before-published interview. Chavkin’s introduction, which focuses on Gardner as he appears in these and his other numerous interviews, is especially noteworthy. The chronology updates the one in Howell (below).

Cowart, David. Arches and Light: The Fiction of John Gardner. Carbondale: Southern Illinois University Press, 1983. Discusses the published novels through Mickelsson’s Ghosts, the two story collections, and the tales for children. As good as Cowart’s intelligent and certainly readable chapters are, they suffer (as does so much Gardner criticism) insofar as they are concerned with validating Gardner’s position on moral fiction as a justifiable alternative to existential despair.

Henderson, Jeff. John Gardner: A Study of the Short Fiction. Boston: Twayne, 1990. Part 1...

(The entire section is 712 words.)