(Masterpieces of American Fiction)

Freddy’s Book is a dual fiction, a contemporary story that includes a historical novel with fantastic elements. The book probes the relationships of art to life and of human beings to one another. The first section, “Freddy,” takes up roughly a quarter of the entire work and serves as an introduction to the longer second half, “Freddy’s Book,” which is subtitled “King Gustav and the Devil.” “Freddy” not only sets up the longer section but also places it in context by introducing the themes that flow throughout the entire work. As the book begins, Jack Winesap, a psychohistorian and popular figure on the academic lecture circuit, has just finished speaking at a college in Madison, Wisconsin, when he meets Sven Agaard, an old-line traditionalist historian who believes that Winesap’s methods are dubious and their results harmful to true historical and human understanding. Winesap agrees to be Agaard’s guest at the older man’s home during his visit, and while he is there, the debate between the two men continues, introducing many of the themes that are developed in the second half of the book. In particular, the two historians confront such basic issues as what constitutes truth in human experience and what role language plays in relaying that truth. During their conversation, Agaard reveals that his son, Freddy, is a “monster.” At first, Winesap dismisses this as exaggeration, but he later learns that it is in some ways true. Freddy Agaard is an eight-foot-tall recluse given to intense inner reflections. He is also an artist in his own right, and later, when Winesap is alone in the bedroom Sven Agaard has provided him, Freddy slips into the room and shyly deposits a manuscript. It is entitled “King Gustav and the Devil,” and it is the second half of the novel. “Freddy’s Book,” as Gardner entitles the section, recounts how Gustav Eriksson Vasa, a Swedish...

(The entire section is 776 words.)


(Masterpieces of American Fiction)

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...

(The entire section is 596 words.)