John Gardner (1933-1982) Critical Essays

John Gardner Jr.

John Gardner (1933-1982) Short Fiction Analysis

(Literary Essentials: Short Fiction Masterpieces)

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 “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...

(The entire section is 2857 words.)