Between the Lines
John Gardner raided the castle of American fiction, a bit like Grendel.

By David Stanton
Sunday, July 16, 2006; BW15

Today, when Lincoln Center hosts the final performance of Julie Taymor's acclaimed and flamboyant new opera, "Grendel," the spotlight will also shine on a writer who was once frequently mentioned in the same breath as Roth, Updike and Malamud. For a long time, however, his name has seldom been mentioned at all.

It was John Gardner's acclaimed 1971 novelization of the Beowulf legend that Taymor and her companion -- the opera's composer, Elliot Goldenthal -- fell in love with and purchased rights to years back. Yet today, much of Gardner's fiction is out of print; the winner of a National Book Critics Circle Award and author of several bestsellers is now often represented by a single volume in your neighborhood bookstore -- and that book is usually Grendel , his shortest and most postmodern novel.

In place of the insensate, man-eating Yeti of 12th-century myth, Gardner gives us a literate monster who narrates his own tale with heavy irony and an almost paralyzing sense of his destiny. This Grendel is well aware that Unferth and Beowulf need him as inspiration for bravery and that the Shaper -- part poet, part PR man -- could not spin their exploits into myth without a truly loathsome foe. In very human fashion, Gardner's beast is torn between belief in the power of faith and the cynical pleasure of acting out his whims, which, in Grendel's case, tend to have gruesome consequences.

Gardner -- who died nearly 25 years ago-- shared much with his most famous creation. It is only a slight exaggeration to say that, in his public assessments of some of his most esteemed fiction-writing peers, Gardner was as brutal and reckless as Grendel. In his scathing 1978 polemic On Moral Fiction , he calls Philip Roth "creepy" and dismisses Saul Bellow as "an essayist disguised as a writer of fiction"; Mailer, Albee, Vonnegut and many others come in for similar drubbings. Their work was not just bad, in Gardner's view, but dangerous.

Is it any wonder that some in the publishing world came to want Gardner's blood? Like Grendel, Gardner was driven to define himself as an enemy of "the kingdom" -- in this case, the ivory tower of successful modern writers favored by college lit professors. He felt that many of his literary contemporaries took comfort in theory rather than emotion and all but dismissed the value of faith and love.

Yet Gardner was, in many ways, indistinguishable from the brainy creatures he claimed to detest -- just as Grendel (in Gardner's reading) is more human than either he or the Danes wish to admit. A scholar and teacher with a passion for philosophy, Gardner was fascinated by the world of ideas; what else could explain his legendary late-night debates about literary theory or medieval verse? He borrowed some of the same experimental techniques he decried in other people's books, playfully breaking the "vivid and continuous dream" that he usually argued was fiction's raison d'être.

But if Gardner wanted to assert his difference from the world of elite and academic writers, he could not have done so more dramatically than with On Moral Fiction . There he presents the conflict between traditional and intellectual approaches to fiction as an almost biblical battle between right and wrong. The bluntness and arrogance of Gardner's judgments fly in the face of a literary culture that still thrives on highly suspect book-jacket endorsements filled with airy flattery. In On Moral Fiction , Gardner asserts that most modern fiction is "tinny, commercial, and immoral"; truly good novels and stories, he writes, are those that inspire us to better behavior instead of appealing to our cynicism.

Like Grendel, though, Gardner discovered that his pleasure in raiding the castle was short-lived, while the alienation and animosity it inspired stayed with him. His intent with On Moral Fiction may have been noble, but its execution was shot through with hubris and self-interest. Though he later reshaped or even retracted some of his positions in interviews, the damage was done; his subsequent novels were frequently panned, with reviewers often comparing them unfavorably to the demanding standards Gardner had applied to others.

What truly undermined Gardner the man, however, was almost certainly an accident that happened when he was just 11. In the spring of 1945, young John was driving a tractor back to the family farm in upstate New York, towing a cultipacker -- essentially a set of giant steel rollers weighing over a ton. His 4-year-old sister, Sandy, and 6-year-old brother, Gilbert, had come along for the ride; while Sandy sat on John's lap, Gilbert rode on the bar in between tractor and cultipacker -- something that would likely appeal to the little boy's daredevil sensibility. Not far from the Gardner farm, the tractor ran out of gas on an incline; the whole caravan lurched, and Gilbert was thrown to the ground. The cultipacker, with its great weight, continued to roll, crushing Gilbert.

Gardner would later say that he had turned around to see his brother half covered by the massive drums, and, according to one version of the story, he made a split-second decision not to reach for the brakes because he believed Gilbert would rather be dead than paralyzed. Although the brakes on the old tractor almost certainly could not have made a whit of difference -- and although no 11-year-old should be put in the position of choosing his own brother's fate -- the feeling that he had snuffed out Gilbert's life through carelessness and perhaps even intentional negligence haunted Gardner until his death.

According to John's younger brother, Jim, the accident gave Gardner a "death wish," one seemingly played out in his reckless motorcycle driving, his copious drinking and non-sleeping -- all of which may have contributed to his untimely death at age 49 in 1982, when he lost control of his motorcycle on a turn and bled to death from a chest wound. As Jim put it to me in a recent interview, "John dared God to keep him alive."

Inspiring right actions through art is, not surprisingly, one of the primary themes of On Moral Fiction . Would having read better books moved John to reach for the brake in that crucial -- but ultimately hopeless -- split second? Clearly, he struggled to atone for his actions by inspiring right actions in others through moral writing and teaching. He was a tireless mentor to hundreds of creative-writing students and even established novelists, some of whom had simply written to him out of the blue seeking advice. As editor of MSS, the journal he created in the 1960s, he published some of the earliest works of writers such as William Gass and Joyce Carol Oates. In both of these roles, Gardner encouraged the uplifting, plot-driven fiction he advocated in On Moral Fiction and his two seminal books for writers, The Art of Fiction and On Becoming a Novelist .

By contrast, Gardner's assaults on the castle of literature -- his harsh words about fellow writers and critics -- seem to have made little real impact. If Gardner was, indeed, our "Grendel of letters," then his raiding had a predictable end. Infuriated by the arrogance and hypocrisy of Hrothgar's horde, Gardner's Grendel tries to teach them a brutal lesson, but he is destined for a comeuppance -- an "accident," as he calls it, but also an inevitability given his villain status. Likewise, Gardner's fall from literary grace seems anything but accidental. ·

David Stanton is working on a book-length study of John Gardner's life and ideas.

© 2007 The Washington Post Company