John Gardner (1933-1982)

by John Gardner Jr.

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John Gardner (1933-1982) Short Fiction Analysis

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Although he published only two short-fiction collections during his brief but nevertheless prolific career, John Gardner took a serious and historically informed interest in short fiction’s various forms. In addition to the nineteen stories, tales, and novellas collected in The King’s Indian and The Art of Living, and Other Stories, Gardner published five uncollected stories (the earliest in 1952 while still an undergraduate, the latest posthumously in 1984); a textbook, edited with Lennis Dunlap, significantly titled The Forms of Fiction (1962); three books of stories for children (1975-1977); a novella aimed at adolescent readers; one novel, Grendel, which initially appeared in abbreviated version (edited as a short story by Esquire’s Gordon Lish, not Gardner); and another novel, Nickel Mountain, originally conceived as a set of interrelated stories. The King’s Indian and The Art of Living, and Other Stories do not, therefore, adequately represent the extent of Gardner’s interest in the short story and its allied forms. They do, however, evidence the consistency of Gardner’s aesthetic vision and, more important, his remarkable technical virtuosity, ranging from the fantastic and parodic at one extreme to the realistic and didactic at the other. Neither The King’s Indian nor The Art of Living, and Other Stories merely collects previously published works; rather, they are carefully and cleverly constructed. The King’s Indian explores and celebrates the art of narrative, whereas The Art of Living, and Other Stories pursues the moral fiction idea, which, by the late 1970’s, had become the author’s chief obsession.

The King’s Indian

The King’s Indian offers an oblique and exuberant commentary on contemporary writing, which Gardner believed was unnecessarily pessimistic and/or overly concerned with its own verbal texture. The King’s Indian is divided into four parts, the first entitled “The Midnight Reader.” Against the progressive darkness of the first four stories of the first part, Gardner posits both the hopeful vision of the fifth story and—less overtly but also perhaps more effectively—the wildly playful voices of all five narrators, metafictional and moral-fictional versions of Samuel Taylor Coleridge’s Ancient Mariner.

“Pastoral Care”

In “Pastoral Care,” the voice belongs to a John Updike-type minister beset by doubts about his congregation, his world, and himself. Unable to raise the social consciousness of his congregation in Carbondale, Illinois, the Reverend Eugene Pick, standing on a footstool that he keeps hidden behind the pulpit, does reach a tall, bearded stranger who acts on Pick’s advice, though in a way that the minister never intended: The stranger bombs the local police station and, as Pick later learns, a church (perhaps his own). Implicated, the minister flees, only, like Jonah, to learn that there is no escape from either the stranger or responsibility (pastoral care). When a girl high on drugs falls from the train, Pick, full of misgivings, attempts to comfort her boyfriend, another bearded stranger. Although he believes that “all systems fail,” Pick also believes (adapting William Shakespeare) that “flexibility is all.” “I force myself to continue,” he says at the story’s end. “I have no choice.”

“The Ravages of Spring”

Another person who apparently does not have a choice is the anonymous country doctor, identified only by the alias William Thorp, in the story “The Ravages of Spring,” also set in Carbondale, sometime in the nineteenth century. The tornado, which sets the story in motion, is formidable but no match for the vortex of intertextual forces from which Gardner spins the story’s befuddled, unprepossessing narrator and his playfully self-conscious narrative—bits and pieces from Edgar Allan Poe, Herman Melville, and Franz Kafka being the most prominent. Against the awed doctor’s appreciation of...

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“the beauty and grandeur of Nature in her rage,” Gardner posits the geneticist Dr. Hunter (a cloned copy of the original doctor, dead some thirty years), and against cloning (the reproduction of exact copies), Gardner posits his own parodic method, part put-down, part homage. The tornado topples the Poesque House of Hunter; the doctor disappears, replaced by three infant copies whom the narrator, a bachelor, leaves in the care of an old woman who, believing them mad (and perhaps thinking she has the doctor’s consent), subjects them to the “mandrake cure” from which the doctor is only able to save two. The good doctor is puzzled by events but accepting of them, including the fictively real children, the presumed offspring of a Dr. Hunter who may be little more than a character in a dream, the result of a storm-induced bump on the narrator’s head.

“The Temptation of St. Ivo”

Affirmation in the face of uncertainty is a major theme in all Gardner’s fiction and more particularly in the three remaining stories of “The Midnight Reader.” In “The Temptation of St. Ivo,” the narrator, Brother Ivo, is a copyist who possesses a firm belief in order and a genius for decorating sacred manuscripts. Ivo manages to balance the imperatives of his fantastic art and the rules of his religious order (as well as his faith in those rules) successfully until Brother Nicholas arrives on the scene. “Your rules are absurd,” Nicholas whispers, “The order of the world is an accident.” Claiming to have found where the phoenix—the symbol of the resurrection and, not incidentally, the most artful of Ivo’s many artful creations—lives, Nicholas in effect forces Ivo to choose between obeying the rules governing monastic life and acting on his faith in order to save not the phoenix, a myth, mere art, but whatever the phoenix may represent (perhaps a child whom Nicholas intends to kill, or even Nicholas’s soul). Ivo chooses action over obedience, complex faith over simple order. He leaves the monastery at night and enters the dark Dantean wood where he soon loses his way: “The rules, techniques of a lifetime devoted to allegory, have ruined me.” According to the usual Christian plot, Ivo must lose himself before he can be saved, but in Gardner’s story, Ivo’s salvation proves at best ambiguous—as ambiguous as the advice given by the knight errant whom he meets: “Nothing means anything.”

“The Warden”

The next story, “The Warden,” does to the existentialist preoccupation with Nothing what much of postmodern fiction does: puts it to comic use, as in the joke line from Thomas Pynchon’s V. (1963), “Nothing was coming; nothing was already here.” The story draws heavily on Poe and Kafka, adds a dash of Samuel Beckett, and ends with the opening lines of Jean-Paul Sartre’s L’Être et le néant (1943; Being and Nothingness, 1956). “The Warden” also leaves its narrator, Vortrab (perhaps a variant of the German Vortrag, meaning “performance”), in a far worse, and also more humorous, predicament than the soon-to-be-sainted Ivo, cut off from the guards and prisoners whom he nominally (but without any real authority) commands, from the warden who may be dead, and from his own family (especially his father, a painter). Josef Mallin, the villain of the piece, is a composite of the anarchist figures of the previous three stories, “a nihilist, destroyer of churches, murderer of medical doctors,” who, until his execution, opposed all ideas on the grounds that they led people to believe in the possibility of a better world (according to Mallin, an illusion). Not much has changed by the story’s end. Vortrab is still waiting for the warden to open his door (“The Parable of the Law” from Kafka’s The Trial, 1937) and even says to the guard Heller what the warden previously said to Vortrab: “You and I are the only hope.”

“John Napper Sailing Through the Universe”

Vortrab’s situation is not so much existentially tragicomic as it is comically parodic. The fifth of “The Midnight Reader’s” five stories strikes a slightly different note and depends less on virtuoso technique than on willed affirmation. Gardner drops the literary masks (Poe, Melville, Kafka, and others) to speak, which is to say to narrate, in his own voice, the voice of “John Gardner,” a fictive character and therefore, autobiographical appearances aside, another mask. Adrift in the same southern Illinois as the Reverend Pick and the country doctor, John and Joan Gardner take off for Europe in search of the jovial John Napper (a character based on the actual artist who illustrated Gardner’s 1972 novel The Sunlight Dialogues). Arriving in Paris, they find that the Nappers are in London, but disappointment gives way to dismay when the house sitter shows them some paintings from an early period, the work of an artist the Gardners cannot recognize: “dark, furious, intellectual, full of scorn and something suicidal. Mostly black, with struggles of light, losing.” Simply put, Napper was what Gardner the narrator/character now is. Gardner soon learns that what saved Napper was his discovery that the cheerful “nonsense” of his later paintings “lighted his sad wife’s eyes.” In the eyes of his own young daughter, in the painting that Lucy has “commissioned” for seven dark English pennies, Gardner sees the beginning of the very conflict that Napper’s art—indeed any art—must depict and, even if only temporarily, offset: “In the pretty flowers, the pretty face, my daughter’s eyes were calculating.” It is an image that leaves Lucy poised between innocence and experience, between the taking of selfish advantage and paying the price, as Napper has, of selfless, although self-conscious, affirmation.

“Tales of Queen Louisa”

The three “Tales of Queen Louisa,” which make up the book’s second part, take the form of fairy tales and so can afford to be less ambiguously affirmative. In drawing on the fairy-tale form here and in his books for young readers, Gardner was contributing to what was fast becoming a postmodern practice: the retelling and defamiliarizing of simple narrative structures—myths and epics as well as fairy tales—by John Barth (Chimera, 1972), Donald Barthelme (Snow White, 1967, “The Glass Mountain”), Robert Coover (Pricksongs and Descants, 1969), Angela Carter (The Bloody Chamber, and Other Stories, 1979), and others, including Gardner (Grendel). Dotted with allusions to contemporary affairs (for example, the war in Vietnam, the kidnapping of Patty Hearst), the three stories recycle traditional plots and character types for decidedly metafictional (but also moral-fictional) purposes. In the only kingdom where imagination rules (the mad Queen’s imagination), art wins, righting all wrongs, transforming pregnant chambermaids into long-lost princesses.

“The King’s Indian”

In “The King’s Indian,” the Queen’s metamorphosing imagination and the transcendent truth that it makes real by royal decree are outdone by the narrative gamesmanship of John Gardner and Jonathan Upchurch. “The King’s Indian” is a strange and exuberant work in the American tall-tale tradition, having characters, plots, and themes borrowed from Edgar Allan Poe, Nathaniel Hawthorne, Herman Melville, Jack London, Samuel Taylor Coleridge, William Shakespeare, Percy Bysshe Shelley, Homer, and Frank L. Baum, among others, and told in a parodically and self-consciously metafictional manner through a relay of narrators. There is the tale’s ostensible narrator, the walleyed Upchurch, who tells his tale in the manner of Coleridge’s Ancient Mariner to a “guest” whose responses to Upchurch’s alternately mesmerizing and infuriatingly “overblown” tale are duly noted. Then there is the barely perceptible narrator who apparently contrives Jonathan’s “crafty fabulation” in a prison cell to pass the time before his execution and thus to keep his mind from the existential abyss into which Jonathan nearly tumbles. Finally, near the tale’s end, John Gardner makes a “guest” appearance to announce that “The King’s Indian” is not “a cynical trick, one more joke on exhausted art” but instead a monument, a collage, a celebration of all literature and life. It is, however, a claim about which even “John Gardner” has his doubts, doubts that the reader—recalling the conundrum of the Cretan barber who claims that all Cretans are liars—must necessarily share.

The relay of narrators mirrors the story’s infinite regress of tales within tales, all stacked like a nest of Chinese boxes. Following the plot of Poe’s The Narrative of Arthur Gordon Pym (1838), Upchurch finds himself aboard the whaler New Jerusalem, whose Captain Dirge turns out to be a ventriloquist’s dummy crafted by the pseudonymous Swami Havananda (disguised as the mate Wilkins) and manipulated by master mesmerist and archtrickster Dr. Luther Flint (disguised as the blind seer Jeremiah). Like Harry Houdini, born Ehrich Weiss, Flint and his assistant play and prey upon the credulity of others yet nevertheless long for some one, stable, absolute truth in the world of illusion, which their theatrical artistry mimics and extends. Tricksters by “maniacal compulsion,” they, like so many characters in Gardner’s fiction (Grendel and the Sunlight Man in particular), long for a state that is unattainable and may not even exist (outside art and religion). Failing in their quest, they end up feeling betrayed. Upchurch learns that a wise man settles for less, “for Ithaca,” which in his case translates to the cry “On to Illinois the Changeable,” accompanied not by Dirge’s beautiful daughter Augusta but by Flint’s battered Miranda (Augusta unmasked). The reader faces a similar choice in judging a story that, on the one hand, offers the literary equivalent of “the magnificence of God and of all his Creation” and, on the other, suggests “mere pyrotechnic pointlessness.”

The Art of Living, and Other Stories

That is not a choice that a reader of The Art of Living, and Other Stories must face. None of the ten stories is stylistically pyrotechnic; all are, if anything, too pointed. Except for “Trumpeter” (another “Queen Louisa” story, told from a dog’s point of view), “The Library Horror” (a sophomoric response to William H. Gass’s position on the autonomy and self-reflexiveness of all art), and “Vlemk the Box-Painter” (an overlong fairy tale that proves less imaginative and more didactic than In the Suicide Mountains, 1977, the novella that Gardner wrote around the same time for adolescent readers), the stories take a more of less realistic rather than (as in The King’s Indian) self-consciously parodic approach. Realism, however, had always been an essential part of Gardner’s immensely varied repertoire of narrative tricks: in The Resurrection (1966), The Sunlight Dialogues, Nickel Mountain, October Light, and Mickelsson’s Ghosts, but not in The Wreckage of Agathon (1970), Grendel, or Freddy’s Book (1980). “The Joy of the Just” was originally part of Nickel Mountain before Gardner decided to turn his collection of interrelated stories into a “pastoral novel,” and “Stillness” was drawn from a novel (posthumously published) that Gardner wrote as a form of marriage therapy (the marriage failed but the novel, even though never revised for publication, is remarkable).


“Redemption” was also written as “bibliotherapy” and became the means by which Gardner began to come to terms with the guilt that he felt over the accidental death of his younger brother Gilbert in 1945. The story is deeply autobiographical and, from its opening sentences, quietly devastating:One day in April—a clear, blue day, when there were crocuses in bloom—Jack Hawthorne ran over and killed his brother David. Even at the last moment he could have prevented his brother’s death by slamming on the tractor’s brakes, easily in reach for all the shortness of his legs; but he was unable to think, or, rather, thought unclearly, and so watched it happen, as he would again and again watch it happen in his mind, with nearly undiminished intensity and clarity, all his life.

After a long period of self-hatred, rage, and withdrawal (from others, especially his family, and into music), Jack will be redeemed—not, however, by his own playing but by that of his teacher, a master musician whose own sufferings during the Russian Revolution match Jack’s. Realizing that he will never play as well as Yegudkin, Jack returns home, finding in the human herd that he, like Friedrich Wilhelm Nietzsche, had formerly scorned, a sense of belonging to something larger, more important, and more forgiving than himself. “Redemption” succeeds so well because it creates, but does not attempt to resolve, the tension between the greatness of what Gardner liked to call “true art”—its visionary power—and the failure of artists and indeed individuals to make their lives art’s equal.

“Come on Back”

In “Come on Back,” the immense gap between the visionary and the quotidian leads one character to take his life but leads the survivors to join in song and thus overcome their individual grief. In the title story, a small-town cook, Arnold Deller, overcomes the loss of a son in Vietnam by preparing a dish that his son had praised in a letter and that, despite their misgivings, members of a local motorcycle gang share with him in a bizarre but nevertheless religious communion. As the cook explains, “‘Love by policy, not just instinct.’ That’s the Art of Living.” Rewarding and quietly effective as “Redemption,” “Stillness,” “Come on Back,” and the title story are, the collection as a whole lacks the disruptive energies that characterize The King’s Indian and that make its affirmations aesthetically as well as morally interesting.


John Gardner (1933-1982) Long Fiction Analysis