(Masterpieces of American Fiction)

The action of the novel encompasses Agathon’s imprisonment for his presumed involvement in the rebellion of the Helots against the Spartan tyrant Lykourgos, his escape at the hands of the Helot rebels, and his subsequent death from plague in the Helot headquarters, a commandeered tomb turned infirmary. An epilogue to the life and action of the novel is provided when Peeker is sent by the Helots to Athens to give Tuka the scrolls that both he and Agathon produced during their imprisonment, the scrolls that comprise the content of the novel.

The form of the novel is autobiographical. Chapters from the feverish mind of Agathon are interlaced with chapters detailing the apprentice observations of the seer-in-progress, Peeker. These interlaced chapters treat the historical context for both men’s lives as well as observations on the present action. Through the minds of these imprisoned scribes, the reader comes to know the life and loves of Agathon and the impact of the culminating wreckage of that experience on Peeker.

While Agathon is the focus of the novel and its dominant spokesman, it is Peeker who is its heart. The novel is a Bildungsroman, a novel chronicling the coming of age of Peeker. Moving from youthful embarrassment at the nonconformist whom he is destined to follow through dutiful response to one in such obvious need, Peeker grows in the nature of compassion and reaches maturity in recognition that genius always has its...

(The entire section is 414 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 criticism) insofar as they are concerned with validating Gardner’s position on moral fiction as a valid alternative to existential despair.

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

(The entire section is 716 words.)