A heartbreaking life of staggering generosity

An eerie thing happened on September 14, 1982. I received a letter from John Gardner that morning about a pack of short stories I’d left with him to critique, at his suggestion, even though I wasn’t one of his students. Later that day, as I sat on the rim of the copydesk, the city editor swiveled in his chair and, pointing to the computer, said, “Look at this.”

It was an AP story reporting that the novelist had died in a motorcycle accident on his way home that day. He was forty-nine. The story sounded like something from his latest novel.

Gardner was well-known in and out of literary circles for his outsized characters and their philosophical rants. Some of his books, like October Light, made the bestseller lists. A few months before his death the New York Times led its book review section with commentary on his last novel, Mickelsson’s Ghosts, a work I had just finished reading.

John Gardner explainsI’d met him earlier in the year in a class at a local university. The professor had invited Gardner to talk about fiction and, as a bonus, he’d read and commented on the first page of our latest submissions. He had a shock of white hair that flowed over his forehead and small, wrinkled eyes. His pipe kept going out as he talked. Later the professor invited some of us to his apartment to continue the discussion. Sitting on the floor, our backs to the tiled fireplace, we listened as Gardner talked about his work.

Some of the discussion was funny. “Why did you sell the short story on Julius Caesar to Playboy?” “Because they offered the most money.” Other parts were more serious. Gardner didn’t give a toss about genres; he didn’t care whether people considered his work popular or literary, thoughtful or entertaining. He wanted to be known as a storyteller. He constantly courted the ancient arts, rewriting epic tales like Beowulf from the monster’s point of view. (Years later, Hollywood would turn his novel Grendel into a movie, the closest to populism the author ever got.)

John Gardner typewriterEmerging from the dream
For emerging writers Gardner is best known for his view that fiction should remain a “vivid and continuous dream” in the mind of the reader, uninterrupted by extraneous detail. Yet his books were crammed with characters philosophizing about life. He seemed obsessed with philosophy and argued constantly against nihilism, a doctrine that nothing is knowable, that rejects all distinctions of moral value. In his work of criticism, On Moral Fiction, he called for books with “just and compassionate behavior,” art that “establishes models of human action.” He may have identified deeply with Grendel, the monster who finds himself cast out of heaven because he’s ugly, comes from a bad family and asks too many questions.

While his characters were not always models of behavior, Gardner was a kind and generous man, lending his time and name to aspiring writings. I met him that May in class and shared an evening with friends, but I wasn’t his student. Yet he invited me to his home in Susquehanna to discuss and critique my work.

I arrived on a fine spring day to find the novelist in a farmhouse on the edge of town, nestled in the hills the locals call the Endless Mountains, purplish gray and draped with mist like the webs of tent caterpillars. The clapboard house had curlicues over the porch; it looked like an old train station.

Inside sat Gardner’s son Joel, a photographer, and Susan Thornton. She and John were to be married—the week he died. A visiting colleague handed him a few short stories and a novel for comment. They talked about producing plays in Susquehanna and about a literary magazine on which he was working.

Gardner went into his study to concentrate on the story. His desk consisted of a door resting on two sawhorses, covered with pipes and papers. He hunched over the story, making quick notes with a pencil. Then he and Susan had to leave. He apologized over and over for giving me so little time.

Mickelsson's Ghosts AMZA life in fiction
Back in the living room, I asked Joel how much of his father’s work was autobiographical—a questions many writers hate but I was too young to know at the time. Not much, Joel said, but then he opened the door to the dining room. It was long and sparking with new plaster walls and thick with beams. The mead hall from Grendel, the house from Mickelsson’s Ghosts. I felt a chill, as if the spirit of those characters were looking over my shoulder.

There were other similarities. The main character in that book, Peter Mickelsson, is a professor at the State University of New York at Binghamton who is battling a failing national reputation and the IRS, which is after him for back taxes. He lives in Susquehanna and is going through a divorce. That much mirrored Gardner’s life. But Mickelsson is going mad, his mind enflamed with the ghosts of Martin Luther and Nietzsche, his wife, his son, two lovers and a murderous couple who used to live in the farmhouse. Joel smiled at this and said his father made up most of the book.

John Gardner hatThe lion of literature
Whatever its condition at the end, Gardner’s career in fiction got off to a slow start. He was born on July 21, 1933, in Batavia, New York. His father was a dairy farmer and lay preacher, his mother a high school literature teacher. His first novel sold about 1,000 copies but The Sunlight Dialogues became a bestseller in 1972 and October Light won the National Book Critics Circle Award in 1976. He raced motorcycles, survived surgery for cancer of the colon and married twice. He lectured at the Bread Loaf Writers Conference. He settled in rural Susquehanna, on a thirty-acre farm. Writers sought his comments on fiction and his clout with publishers.

A gifted writer with a marvelous ear for dialogue, he had always written interesting books. But with Mickelsson’s Ghosts he reached the top of his form, merging his beloved philosophy with a strong story line. He also seemed to have mellowed from the harsh critic of his youth to a man who wanted to say good things about others. People said he was trying to find his place. Others found him humble and generous.

The day I visited him in the Endless Mountains he sat on the couch and chatted in a smooth and quiet voice about new projects. I told him I’d had trouble finding his work in the local bookstore. It wasn’t filed under “fiction.” Concerned that his backlist had gone out of print, I asked the clerk if she carried Gardner’s books and she led me to the back of the story. There they were, filed under “literature.”

Gardner threw back that great mane of white hair and howled with delight, much like I imagine Grendel might have done.