Wednesday, August 12, 2009

John Gardner

When I was in high school in the 70's I read Grendel and In The Suicide Mountains by John Gardner, and both books really spoke to me: Grendel because as a teenager I felt pretty monstrous and alone, and In The Suicide Mountains because I felt for the misfit trio of Chudu the Goat's Son, a dwarf afraid of his own power, Armida, an enormously strong blacksmith's daughter who had to pretend to be delicate to fit into society's expectations, and Prince Christopher the Sullen, a sensitive youth who would rather write poetry and play the violin than battle villains and dragons. The three had separately decided to end their delimmas with suicide, and travel to the Suicide Mountains, where, in a monastery at the edge of the cliffs, the Abbot (who may be the notorious six-fingered man, the man no jail in the world can hold) offers them cogent reasons why suicide is no answer.

I was mainly interested in his fantasies, of course: in the stories of Mad Queen Loiusa in The King's Indian, and the embedded tale of the Devil and Lars Goren-Bergquist in Freddy's Book. But eventually I came to appreciate his more realistic (yet still poetic) novels like October Light and Nickel Mountain, where ordinary people (a cussed old New England farmer and his liberal sister, an overweight diner owner and his pregnant teenage bride) struggle to find the meaning of their lives, their "art of living." It was all part of what John Gardner called "moral fiction," which was not so much about ethical action as it was finding positive ways of dealing with life, and as an author presenting them to your readers in an effort to help them. In a time when the attitude of most serious writing could be summed up as "It's later than you think; we're all doomed; have a nice day", it was a striking and controversial stance to take in the literary world, and earned him some approbation from his fellow authors, but popularity among common readers.

In time I learned more about his personal life: how Gardner was driving the tractor that accidentally killed his brother, and the darkness that followed him ever after; of his authorial persona of long pewter hair, pipe, and motorcycle jacket; of his crazy motorcycle drives that would eventually end with his end. In Jason and Medeia he produced the first epic poem to have been published in decades, and successful enough to get a paperback edition. He wrote crazy fables for children like Dragon, Dragon that you almost have to be a philosophy professor to really understand, but which appeal on a deeper level, like a dream, to any reader, as well as being hilariously funny. In 1977 it was Gardner who reviewed The Silmarillion for The New York Times Book Review, in which he famously referred to the Music of the Ainur as "cosmic jazz." Despite the darkness he always seemed to be battling, he could be very humorous, and his personality has been described as that of a "mischievous wizard."

In 1982 while I was attending college at SWTSU Gardner was scheduled to appear on the lecture circuit. We (my brothers and I) were all eager to see him, to listen to what he had to say, and perhaps even ask a question or two. Of all the speakers we had seen, Gardner seemed the most approachable, the one we might have the most to gain from by contact. Then came the shocking news in September: on the eve of his third marriage Gardner had had a fatal accident on one last motorcycle drive in the Endless Mountains. He was forty-nine. It's hard to believe he would be about 77 now, and useless (but fascinating) to wonder what books we might have if he had lived. But we still have what he left us, and I'm still working on my ambition to one day read The Sunlight Dialogues straight through.

To see Gardner in action (and I must admit it was a revelation to me) go to Youtube and search "Sunlight Man John Gardner." There's also an interesting snippet under "Nickel Mountain."


AlanDP said...

Excellently informative post, and another photo for my pipe smoker files if I ever get around to posting them again.

John said...

As I recall Gardener was not only supposed to visit the university, he was supposed to teach there! How cool would that have been? I remember reading somewhere about Gardener hauling the manuscript of his first novel to be published to his editor wrapped up in black trash bags, arriving via motorcycle and in full leathers and crew cut. A colorful and wise guy, it would have been neat to have met him. His theories on writing are still out there though, he was generous enough to have written them down and left them as part of his wonderful legacy.