WHEN IT happened, 32 years ago last April, everybody agreed John Gardner couldn't have stopped the tractor from killing his little brother, Gilbert. His father said so, his mother said so, the uncles and aunts and neighbors up in Batavia, New York agreed. Even now, his mother insists that "only God could have stopped that tractor, and he doesn't work that way."

So when Gardner's short story, "Redemption," appeared in the Atlantic Monthly last June, some of his family and friends were surprised. Not surprised that he'd write about it - he'd been talking and brooding about it his whole life - but at the second sentence. Nobody'd known about the part.

The story begins: "One day in April - a clear blue day when there were crocuses in bloom - Jack Hawthorne ran over and killed his brother, David. Even at the last moment he could have prevent his brother's death by slamming on the tractor brakes, easily in reach for all the shortness of his legs; but he was unable to think, or rather thought unclearly, and so watched it happen, as he would again and again watch it happen in his mind, with nearly undiminished clarity, all his life.

"The younger brother was riding, as both of them knew he should not have been, on the cultipacker, a two-ton implement lumbering behind the tractor, crushing new-ploughed ground. Jack was twelve, his brother, David, seven. The scream came not from David, who never got a word out, but from their five-year-old sister, who was riding on the fender of the tractor, looking back. When Jack turned to look, the huge iron wheels had reached his brother's pelvis.He kept driving, reacting as he would to a half-crushed farm animal, and imagining, in the same stab of thought, that perhaps his brother would survive. Blood poured from David's mouth."

So that was it, all those years, said the people who knew Gardner when they read the the story. He's always thought he could have stopped. Some, in fact, didn't believe it. Gardner, like a lot of novelists, has a way of telling stories about himself with a variety of facts. Besides, it seems obvious that no one has reflexes fast enough to keep wheels from turning another half of a revolution before they stop. Finally, as Gardner himself is quick to note, the medium is fiction.

The story goes on to describe the boy's grief, rage, guilt, brooding, sturm and drang , "the tragedy of his life," Gardner's mother says now. "Jack Hawthorne" seeks redemption in art, in playing the French horn, which Gardner plays, only to learn from the example of his monstrous genius of a teacher, a mad, bitter old Russian, that the only true redemption comes from plunging back into "the herd" of humanity.

It's a notion which leads one to wonder why Gardner keeps on writing, persisting in his art. And it's a story that lacks the pyrotechnics, the brittle syntax of a lot of his earlier work, the six novels (including October Light, Nickel Mountain, Grendel, The Sunlight Dialogues ) which, along with an epic poem (Jason and Medeia ), a book of short stories, (The King's Indian ), and his academic work on medieval English literature, have won him a fervored following, made him famous. The story is pure power, way beyond the self-consciousness of academics, beyond tour de force.

I decided, in our interview, to ask John Gardner if I was right that he'd been waiting all his life to write it. But I was warned by an old friend of his: "Tread lightly."

John Gardner, at 44, is spending this year as writer-in-residence at George Mason University in Fairfax. According to one old acquaintance, it's something like his twentieth move in twenty-five years, so in itself, it's no sign of a radical break with the past. He'd already taught medieval English literature and creative writing at schools including San Franciso State, Southern Illinois, Skidmore, Bennington, and Northwestern, plus a bunch of writers' workshops such as the Breadloaf Conference. Now, at George Mason, a new university whose campus seems to be mostly parking lots, Gardner is near a former creative writing student of his who is furthering her talents in the course taught at Johns Hoplins by novelist John Barth (Giles Goat-Boy, The Sotweed Factor, The Floating Opera ). Gardner's newest book, a fairy tale entitled In the Suicide Mountains is dedicated to her. He has left his wife of twenty-five years, his two children, Joel and Lucy, 17 and 15, in Vermont. Plus one of his many trademarks, his motorcycle, right now a Honda 750 he bought because it's cheaper than his beloved Harleys. And he has abandoned, at least temporarily, his usual tricks in his most recent publication, "Redemption."

Otherwise, the John Gardner image is intact, slouched in front of me in a borrowed office at George Mason blond, nearly albino hair hanging lank to mesomorph shoulders, the tidy barrel of a body, jeans and work boots, the efficient gestures of a man who grew up doing manual labor, now stuffing his constant pipe. He is not wearing his usual black leather jerkin, though he has been, lately, even in the last surly, smoggy days of Washington's summer.

One faculty member has told me: "Some of us are getting tired of the phone ringing all the time for John Gardner."

Gardner looks nearly combat tired, a whole way of setting his round, cautious farmer's face into an expression that both pries and winces at the same time.

Asked why "Redemption" shuns the bravura technique of his earlier writing, Gardner nods, mutters, ponders, pipe-stuffs. "I spent a lot of time evading the dark center of things by, usually, technical tricks," he says.

In "Redemption," however, "for once the techniques aren't showing. That's the important thing. I have spent all my life so far developing more and more techniques. I have the biggest bag of tricks of any write I know. I know more ways of doing every single thing," he says. He talks fast and soft, through his nose, all the vowels reduced to one neutral sound, the accent of upstate New York. "Like, if I want to open, a lady to open a door, and there's something behind it that you don't want her to see, I can do it twenty ways, each one different. Every time I come to a situation, I know all the options, like a really good carpenter. The thing is that having spent all that time developing techniques, what I want to do now is start using them. And that's the moment when you change from a kind of good writer with a very serious mind and set of emotions into a really major writer. And whether or not I can make that transition, I don't know."

"Is 'Redemption' the beginning of that transition?"

"Yeah, there's another story coming out soon, called 'Stillness,' similar to that, which is about a girl dying. Yeah . . . these stories . . . enormously simple . . ." he says, retreating into a mutter as the conversation gets personal, charging out with adroit put-downs when he brings up other writers. "What I want to do is make a really lasting mark on American culture, and not just with my own fiction. If I can make clear to people, in books like Moral Fiction, which I'm bringing out in the spring, and in my own work, and in comments on people, and reviews, what is good and what is bad and what the reasons are, I think people won't get away with what they get away with now. I think most of our writers . . . Richard Locke did an article a while ago in The New York Times in which he sets up the top five and he's wrong! The only one in the top five who belongs there is Nabokov. Saul Bellow is a genius but he's no great writer."

"Are you there?"

"No. Neither me nor any of the other important middle-aged writers. Norman Mailer was there. Norman Mailer can't write his way out of a paper bag. He's an interesting egoist, but he's no writer. It's easy to have sloganny positions. The problem with him is that his positions come out of deep moralistic feeling, but so did Hitler's. It means nothing."

"Who else was there?"

"Thomas Pynchon. Thomas Pynchon is not a writer. He means to be a writer but he's just not an artist, he's just - ing around."

Gardner has told me in an earlier phone conversation that he is "a nasty man." When I mention this, he says: "Did I say that?"

In any case: "I believe that I'm one of the really great writers; I haven't proved that yet, but I feel that it's coming." On the other hand, John Updike has "no rhythm whatsoever; he was a watercolorist so it's all visual." J.P. Donleavy has rhythm, but that's all he's got. "He's hung up on language. He writes with his ear." J.D. Salinger didn't write a novel, just strung a lot of short stories together. Donald Barthelme merely "imitates the anxiety of the age, he's not on philosophic questions," the blame for that going, it seems, to the cultural dominance of New York City. "I mean, I'm not putting it down but it's a European outpost, its intellectual center is brilliant immigrants so anyone who comes from New York is going to represent a continental point of view," which means existentialism, which is "so obviously wrongheaded." Scratch Camus and Sartre, plus all the New Yorkers. John Barth "knows nothing about literature and it's a terrible fault." Dostoyevsky dealt with important questions but "he let it go, just because he was a gambler and was forced to be a fraudulent artist." Nabokov, he says, was an intuitive writer "although his intuitions were, you know, mostly invalid," and he was "no good, really, after Lolita." Tolstoy understood Gardner's idea of moral fiction, but in his moral commentary on art "he was wrong most of the time." Chaucer, he says, is the greatest philsophic writer in English, except that you can't perceive that unless you read him in the original Middle English, and "you have to understand the Ptolemaic system," which is the astronomical system that Galileo torpedoed. Gardner is a Chaucer expert. The greatest American writer was Herman Melville "who had nothing but scorn for the writers around him, for Hawthorne's fiddling around." Second comes Henry James, says Gardner, but it wasn't till his last book that "he faces up to the total reality that some people are happy."

So I ask who Gardner likes and admires. "My greatest loves haven't been novels," he says. "It's been stuff like Dante, Homer, Shakespeare and Chaucer. I mean, Shakespeare's not always good, sometimes he-writes like a dog." He adds that in looking at his own writing, "I know when I'm in their class, and I know when I'm far below it."

The Great American Novel is like God to some people: they're sure it exists, sure it can be written, but nobody has shown absolute, tangible proof of it yet. Even to quest after it requires the strange combination of arrogance and despair that marks pilgrims. "The two biggest works of art in the world are cathedrals and novels," Gardner has said. And: "I wanted to write great fiction." It's an American dream.

A lot of the big tries at great novel writing are coming now from professors, of all people, a notion that would startle a Dickens, a Jane Austen, a Hemingway. Professors are experts on reading, not writing. The difference between the two is like that between living in a house and building one. And, Gardner says, a Ph.D. program "forces you to deal with very minor stuff." Simultaneously, "you can't write great art without being a great man. It's almost unacheivable in life because life keeps throwing things at you, Melville's daughter dying . . . so you build up your technical facility, which takes half a lifetime . . . Melville says this thing about how a man whose house has been burned in a thunderstorm is never a good judge of lightning. It's the same kind of thing. If you're telling a story and you get into an area that's highly sensitive you're likely to sort of tremble and go crazy."

Tread lightly, I think to myself. What I want to know is, what happens to Jack Hawthorne after he realizes that playing the French horn will not redeem him; after he plunges back into the "herd" of humanity.

"Will he keep playing the horn?" I ask.

"He'll become a writer," Gardner says, his mouth toying with the idea of a smile, rare on his face. And in a few moments he's talking about the writing program he got into at the University of Iowa. "I had a tendency, I was very young then, to scorn my fellow students. I tought their fiction was lousy. Sometimes it go published. And I thought, boy, that's really lousy, the publishing world is lousy." So Gardner started taking courses in medieval English literature, finally getting a Ph.D. Along the way he picked up a tendency towards academic syntax, such as "making a fiction" for writing. And he wrote ream after ream of fiction, all he says, to hone and steel himself for the work to come now; the new direction; the big one.

Is it true, I ask, that he's been waiting a long time to write "Redemption"?

"Probably," Gardner says, very fast ans low.

"Is writing a catharsis for you?"

Gardner says: "There's obviously an element of that. It really is true that I used to have constant afterflashes about that scene and sometimes I'd be driving down the road and I actually couldn't see the road because the afterflash was so strong. [Blood poured from David's mouth . . .] And I haven't had those afterflashes even once since I wrote that story."

I tell him the story, for me, has terricfic drive and gravity. The only parallel I can think of is Beethoven.

"It is true that Beethoven is exactly what I'd like to be. Every time I write a fiction, what I want to get is the absolute clarity, the absolute simplicity and originality of all good fiction. Great art goes for the heart, but does it with pizazz."

"Is this some kind of sea change?"

"I hope."

"It's almost as if you've been afraid of you own power," I say. "Are you?"

"No. I've not really been facing it head on, though that's true. I've been spending most of my time on various kinds of technical things that I know I need in order to get to the final power, to express it. The next time I publish a novel, it'll be either the most pompous stupid thing in the world, or it'll be a mindbeaker. And I'll probably catch it if it's a pompous stupid novel, and I won't publish it."

Our conversation rambles through literature, pausing here and there to stomp some critic, or fellow novelist, or, at one point a whole class, the middle one, "suburban kids" because they can't write, and have nothing to write about Backed by the general consensus that the novel is a form of, for and by middle class people. I argue. He argues. Premises shift. We concede exceptions. It's all in the spirit of the murmur and rustle of the English department outside our door.Phones ring. Secretaries tell students our door. Phones ring. Secretaries tell students that the professor isn't in. They sit down and lean against the no-color, cost-efficient, cinder-brick walls of George Mason University, to wait. Gardner and I finally agree that a rich interior life is probably important for a writer.

"Yeah," he says. "I spent an awful lot of my life on a tractor going around and around a field".

"Then basically, "Redemption' is true," I say.

"Sure, basically."

"It would seem one of the crucial moments of your life".

"It was certainly that, or at least it developed me because I brooded on it. I don't do it much any more, I don't brood much anymore".

"Are there any other events of that magnitude in your life which will come out in your literature?"

"I don't know. I have no idea."

Gardner talks more about training himself, all his life, for greatness in literature. He describes how he monitors his sensations."Like one time I saw an accident in Colorado. We were the first to arrive. A lady's leg had been cut off and I was aware as we ran out of the car and did everything we could that I was recording it all, very carefully."

"Do you fell that made you run slower?" I ask.

"No, certainly no. In fact, if anything, it improves your performance. God is watching you".

Ah, God as novelist, the world as a tale he tells.

So I can see now the last question I have for Gardner. I want to know about his belief that he, or Jack Hawthorne, could have hit the brakes and saved the brother. "That's an illusion," I say. "That isn't true. I've experienced the same kind of time-slowing feeling in automobile accidents."

"That's no an illusion," Gardner insists. "That's a fact of body chemistry.

"I know from my personal experience that the accident happened much faster than he thought it did," I say.

"I don't believe that," Gardner says. "Your body acts faster . . . a kid I taught, she was 15 and she picked a car up off her brother. The body can do unbelievable things."

"Well . . . " I say, stymied, puzzled.

"Anyway, it may or may not be an illusion.

That' nobody'll ever know."

What I don't consider, until later, is what John Gardner's life might have been like if he hadn't blamed himself, hadn't brooded, hadn't fled to art for succor, hadn't accused himself in secret more savagely than any writer or critice he attacks. If he forgave himself, even after all these years, even with all the facts in his favor what would he do next?