One-Minute Muse

by Ed Davis on August 26, 2009

An Auspicious Meeting

Meeting John Gardner briefly in 1979 changed my life forever. The encounter was about one minute in length.

I was grading with my office door open one April afternoon my first year of teaching at Sinclair Community College, when a colleague stuck her head inside. “John Gardner’s walking around the hall,” she whispered. “Go talk to him!”

Now I remembered: he was here to co-keynote with John Jakes our annual Writers’ Workshop. I’d read about half of The Sunlight Dialogues as a grad student and found the novel baffling, sometimes even maddening. Still, meeting a cool writer sure beat grading. Stepping into the empty late-afternoon corridor, I saw a short, denim-clad man in a motorcycle jacket, pipe belching smoke, apparently studying closed doors.

“Mr. Gardner?”

He stuck out his hand and I took it, rough and leathery, his fingernails oil-blackened and dirty. I had no idea then of his persona as a motorcycle-riding, hard-drinking post-modern Medievalist. He’d probably been working on his bike before he got on the plane.

“I, uh, love your writing,” I got out. Though it wasn’t entirely true, it wasn’t a complete lie, either. I figured I would’ve liked his book, if I’d actually finished it. And I liked the author’s photo on the back cover, with his long silver hair, pipe in hand, surrounded by books and manuscripts, a modern Dante.

“Thanks,” he said, smiling. “Do you write?”

“Y-yeh, a little p-poetry.”

“Maybe you’ll show me a poem or two while I’m here.”

I didn’t think so—much too intimidated—and I was shocked he’d asked. Later I found out that, because it took him so long to get published, he was always trying to encourage fledgling writers. Looking into his wizened face, shards of hair obscuring his eyes, I needed something else to say.

“It’s always struck me as odd how much you love Chaucer, since your work is so, uh, modern, I mean, y’know, how different you are.”

“Yep,” he finally said, eye-corners crinkling kindly, “Chaucer’s a lot funnier.”

It was such a small gift, but he let me off the hook I’d put myself on, bullshitting the great writer that I knew anything about him or his work.

The Wounded Muse

I attended Gardner’s workshop, got him to sign books for me and little suspected until I began my first novel that summer that I’d met my first muse.

His shaggy visage and gentle kindness spoke to me, but I think unconsciously I also related to his deep childhood wound. When he was eleven, John watched as a 1500-pound farm machine he was pulling with the tractor he was driving, rolled over and killed his 6-year-old brother Gilbert. Biographer Barry Silesky, in the prologue to John Gardner: The Life and Death of a Literary Outlaw, states that for the rest of his life, John held himself responsible. He attempted to deal with the tragedy in his autobiographical story “Redemption,” included in The Art of Living. John’s courage to air his own wounds encouraged me to air some of mine as autobiographical fiction. My first published novel, I Was So Much Older Then, completed nearly twenty years after finishing my first (thankfully unpublished) one, is an elegy to my own childhood.

The Fabulist

In the weeks following John’s visit, I finished Sunlight Dialogues and was dumbstruck with the range, beauty and power of this modern moral fable of a murderous magician who, like a mad Old Testament prophet, has come to scourge Batavia, New York, Gardner’s hometown. I continued to read most of his 21books, many of which went out of print after his death in September of 1982 at 49, four days before his wedding to the woman who would’ve been his third wife. Others that I’ve grown fond of include:

  • Mickelsson’s Ghosts, the dark tale of a philosophy professor whose disintegrating life is haunted as much by Mormons, his ex-wife and daughter as by ghosts in his gloomy country house.
  • Nickel Mountain, a mythic-religious account of middle-aged, obese and tender-hearted diner-owner Henry Soames, who, after marrying his much-younger pregnant waitress, wrestles with inner and outer demons in order for him and his rural community to thrive.
  • Grendel, probably the best-known of his novels, is taught in some high schools. It’s the Beowulf legend re-told from the monster’s first-person point of view. Gardner described the book, darkly funny and philosophical, as equal parts Walt Disney and Jean Paul Sartre.

Sunlight Man

I finally managed to make it to the John Gardner Society’s annual conference in April 2007 (contact Charley Boyd at CABoyd@genesee.edu for more information). Though it’s usually held in Batavia, that year, the tenth annual celebration, it was held in Susquehanna, Pennsylvania, where John lived at the time of his death. Though the drive was arduous, I was not disappointed: the festival was as “fabulistic” as John himself. The elfin director was straight out of a Gardner novel, the town as starkly spooky as it was described in Mickelsson’s Ghosts, and the event was held at the old train station, now a restaurant, where I expected to see Harry Potter departing for Hogwart’s on the platform outside.

The festival was part conference, part fan club, ranging from the reading of scholarly papers and reminiscing to a review of the University of Rochester’s collection of the author’s papers, letters and manuscripts. At lunch we heard a rumor: Susan Thornton, the woman John was to wed four days after he died, might drop by to address us.

Sure enough, the buzz turned out to be true.

Having recently read Thornton’s memoir On Broken Glass: Loving and Losing John Gardner, I was prepared to witness the pain detailed in her harrowing account of their life together, the motorcycle crash that took his life and its aftermath. But although she seemed happy to talk about her old lover, she’d clearly moved on in her life, marrying and carving out a career outside of fiction-writing.

Therefore, the conference’s true climax belonged to a Gardner: not John but his son Joel. As cheerful, enthusiastic and kind as his father but physically resembling his mother, he regaled us with JG tales, then showed us a rough cut of the documentary film he was making about his father’s life, touchingly entitled Sunlight Man.

The movie was a good note on which to end the festival, illuminating somewhat the darkness that constituted a good portion of my first literary muse’s life and reminding me of his enduring personal as well as literary legacy. While it took the Beatles the length of their first Ed Sullivan show set, about eight minutes, to change me forever, it took John Gardner only one.

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