John Gardner (1933-1982) Short Fiction Analysis
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.
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,”...
(The entire section is 2,857 words.)