October Light by John Gardner.
Knopf, 480 pp. $10.00.
Like any art form, the short story imposes particular demands. Generally it focuses on a single central character, with a limited supporting cast. Physical descriptions and details of the setting are held to a minimum. Exposition is also limited, and the prolonged digressions of early writers of fiction eliminated. The general rule of the short story, laid out early by Poe, is that no detail is to be included that does not contribute to the central effect. All these demands have had their effect on the development of the modern novel. As early as Hawthorne one can see writers beginning to subject their novels to the rigors of the shorter form. Especially in the twentieth century, many novelists have served their apprenticeships as short story writers, and at their best (as in John Cheever’s Falconer, reviewed in the May issue) have produced lean concentrated works with all the weight of much larger volumes.
It would be my guess that John Gardner served no such apprenticeship. He has published, now, eight books of fiction (including a book-length poem, Jason and Medeia), and only one, The King’s Indian, is a book of stories. Some of those stories, in fact, seem to strain at the shorter form, and, if the list of acknowledgements can be taken as a guide, had not been widely published. Gardner’s apprenticeship seems to have been a lonely one. In an interview first published in Fiction International (now available in a volume entitled The New Fiction, edited by Joe David Bellamy), he states that he wrote for years while no one would publish him. When he burst on the literary scene in the early seventies as what seemed a remarkably prolific writer, he was actually in some cases publishing works composed years before. Without much encouragement, at least from publishers, he labored away at the art of the novel, evolving his own vision, unconcerned with popular taste. In many ways he seems a throwback to a much earlier kind of writer. His casts of characters can be enormous (his much acclaimed The Sunlight Dialogues includes a list in the front several pages long). His characters’ physical details are closely described, their pasts explored in pages of exposition. Gardner’s viewpoint shifts from character to character. His settings, landscapes, are elaborately laid out. He deals with ideas, discussing them at great length. His volumes are even illustrated. The publishing world and the public have come around to Gardner, but he has not made concessions to them. Full of confidence, with a smooth, solid prose style, he unashamedly produces fat novels, packed with detail. Obviously he intends them to be read slowly, carefully, to be savored.
Toward the end of the marvelous Nickel Mountain (an early work, published late) is a poignant scene: an aged couple standing at the site of their son’s grave, overseeing his reinterment. Crabby, spatting, they disagree on everything, have obviously been arguing for years — he insists his child is gone, mouldered; she believes he is “living in Glory” — but beneath their petty differences stands the enormous force of their mutual love for their son, their vivid sorrow at having lost him many years before. That kind of scene, suggesting the pettiness of life’s surface, the gravity that underlies it, recurs time and again in October Light, and the novel’s basic situation is reminiscent of that brief scene from Nickel Mountain. At his farmhouse on Prospect Mountain, in Vermont, the elderly James L. Page has recently been joined by his older widowed sister, Sally Page Abbot, who has been forced to seek his help because of personal financial difficulties. They, too, profoundly disagree on things, always have. One evening, in the presence of his nine-year-old grandson, Dickey, James can abide his sister no longer, blows out the screen of her television with his shotgun, and, brandishing a stick of firewood, chases her upstairs and locks her in her room. Fierce, stubborn, she is as indignant as he, locks the door from her side. It is a declaration of war.
Their disagreements are so profound as to be more character traits than simple differences of opinion. Though not in a shallow way, James is staunchly patriotic. As a Yankee farmer, he believes in the old values, hard work, thrift, honesty, self-reliance. He has a strong sense of history, seems widely read in it, and has a sense also of its mythic presence: though hardly sentimental about them, he has his heroes from the American past. He believes the country has lost much, is rapidly changing for the worse — television exemplifies these changes — and he, for one, intends to hold the line. Sally, though hardly a revolutionary, is more accepting of the modern world. She sees its shortcomings, but is content to examine things, hold her judgment. She imagines how she, as a younger woman, might have fit into this new age. She understands and sympathizes with the difficulties of the oppressed. It is partly because of her liberality toward social causes that she has gone through the money left by her late husband. For James, her financial plight is like that of all those in the country who live off the dole of a hardworking few. She is not much better than a welfare cheat. If she had been more careful she would not need him.
As the early chapters unfold, the complexity of their quarrel deepens. James’ daughter Virginia, a harried, sometimes despairing middle-aged woman, comes to pick up her son, and inevitably becomes involved. Through the musings of these three, James, Sally, Virginia, the reader is made aware of other details from the past. The two sons of James’ marriage — Virginia’s brothers — are dead, one in a childhood accident, the other, Richard, by a suicide in his early twenties. It is Richard who, though dead, is often the focus of the novel. His suicide is the single most catastrophic event in the lives of all the main characters; it is central to them all. James had been a hard father to Richard, held up to him the same impossible standards that he maintains for himself. He thought his son timid, weak, cowardly, and was as harsh with him as he would have been with those same qualities in himself. Sally saw Richard’s gentle, sensitive side, often remembers her fondness for him, how she and her husband Horace had helped the boy conduct a clandestine romance in his teens; because the girl was Irish and a Catholic, James would not have approved.
But Sally’s musings concern not only her own past. On a whim, partly out of boredom, she has taken to reading a trashy paperback, The Smugglers of Lost Souls’ Rock, that she has found in her room. An adventure story, a wild allegory, it deals with a shipload of marijuana smugglers: Mr. Nit, a technologist; Goodman, a moralist; Jane, a liberated female; all commanded on the ship Indomitable by Captain Fist, who is half-Faust, half-Satan himself, a kind of latter day Captain Ahab. He is also, of course, the ultimate modern capitalist, vastly successful as a trafficker in illegal goods. As the novel opens, this odd band rescues Peter Wagner, a despairing existentialist, from a suicide attempt, and as a mock-Saviour (he has been resurrected) he reluctantly leads them on their journey. Partway on the voyage to their Mexican connection, they encounter the ship Militant, commanded by two blacks and an Indian, who are trying to take over Fist’s operation. Suddenly to Sally the allegory is apparent: it is a struggle between the capitalist bosses and the oppressed minorities. To the reader, another meaning is also apparent; Smugglers is a mocking echo of the Pages’ own struggle, James the stern Indomitable, Sally the determined Militant.
It is in the inclusion of this novel within a novel that Gardner the traditionalist gives way to Gardner innovator. An obvious question poses itself: if the paperback is trashy, why should his reader be condemned to wade through it? As he has suggested in his recent Atlantic Monthly interview, Gardner is ultimately making a statement about the effects of art, trashy and otherwise, on our lives, but one still has to wonder why, in order to get the point, he has to make his way through The Smugglers of Lost Soul’s Rock. It is trashy in a peculiar way. Full of casual allusions to literature, philosophy, it deals with modern social questions, with the existential dilemma of modern man. In places it is funny, entertaining. Odd parts are well-written. But it is trashy because in some ultimate way its intentions are not serious. Loose ends dangle all over the place. It raises important issues but makes no important statement about them. It introduces characters who fail really to work into the action. Its events are often absurdly unlikely, suggesting an allegory, but even the allegory is sloppy and fails to hold together. It is hard to imagine such a book being written. It is hard to imagine the intelligent but unprincipled author who would write it. It is perhaps in an odd way a tribute to Gardner that the reader finds himself resentful of Smugglers’ interruptions, longing to get back to the far truer story of the Pages.
Toward the middle of October Light, we do have a respite from Smugglers in a protracted passage which begins the most effective part of Gardner’s narrative. A crowd of Sally’s friends arrive at the farmhouse, trying simply by their presence to coax her out of her room, and in an expansive scene which deepens all of the novel’s themes, Gardner moves from character to character, examining moments from their lives. James movingly states his case against Sally. Sally puzzles over various kinds of oppressions. A local minister lectures on his complex view of evolution. A Mexican priest, visiting the minister, speaks of his love of human diversity, varying cultural types, even when it leads to conflict. Estelle Parks, an old friend of Sally’s, muses on her long life as a beloved school teacher, her brief, late, wonderfully happy marriage. Terence Parks and Margie Phelps, young people, both musicians, play a duet and a romance between them blossoms. Ruth Thomas recites poetry. Her husband Ed speaks to Virginia’s husband Lewis about the difficulties of farming, about his heart trouble. Gardner dwells on these moments, envisions them fully. Various commentators have alluded to his pastoral elements, and it is this long central scene, a simple social evening with music, food, conversation, discussion, warmth, closeness, memories, that in October Light reflects that part of his vision. An echoing scene in Smugglers, as the ships reach Lost Souls’ Rock, is a despairing one. Characters search their lives for meaning, find only emptiness. Their thoughts are befuddled by the immense stores of marijuana that they are liberally sampling. Their evening ends in an orgy of sex.
Gardner’s pastoral vision is not, as it could be, sentimental. His characters pass a pleasant evening, but their lives have not been easy — the facts they find themselves recalling sometimes reflect sorrow, tragedy, despair — and at the end of the evening, life’s powerful, irrational, unknown force, what James calls its “dark and dangerous” side, makes an appearance.
When Dr. Phelps opened the door it pushed him back a step and wind came bounding into the room like a horse. “Great Christ!” he exclaimed. Whether it was the wind or something darker, a chill went through them, as if the old doctor’s cry had in fact been a prayer. . . .
With the door still blown open, the kitchen nearly hushed, there came from somewhere below them on the mountain, surely not more than a half mile a way, a sound like the explosion of a bomb.
James had left the house in disgust early in the evening, spent his time in a bar where, as usual, he confronted the conflict between the world he would have chosen and the world as it was. As he launches himself back toward the farm, he sets off a string of catastrophes that affect every character in the novel.
The Smugglers of Lost Souls’ Rock, as Sally finishes it, moves through an amusing trial of Captain Fist, in which everyone states his side of the case and no one decides anything, then ends in an absurdly apocalyptic scene which resolves nothing except the author’s dilemma about how to finish his book. James Page is allowed no such easy escape. He survives the catastrophes he has brought about, as in the past he and the others had survived so many catastrophes, and is forced to face the consequences of what he has done. He too must endure a trial, but it is a trial of owning up to mistakes, facing people he has wronged. On his way to that task, he thinks of his past, the single overwhelming mistake — his failure to reach out with love to Richard — that has haunted his later years. He remembers how much he loved his son even as he realizes how ineptly he expressed that love. He decides that if there were one small thing he could change, it would be to have let Richard know he forgave him for a moment of weakness. It was Richard’s weaknesses that James could never bring himself to forgive. In a brief moment, so muted it could almost be overlooked, James also sees his own need for forgiveness.
But there was, of course, no secret door; that was the single most important fact in the universe. Mistakes were final — the ladder against the barn, the story about the death of Uncle Ira that he shouldn’t have told. He felt himself fingering the snake’s head again, scraping the tip of his bobbed finger against the one remaining tooth, and a brief flush of some queer emotion went through him — not anger, exactly; perhaps a brief flicker of understanding. There was a wastebasket standing by the table in the corridor ahead of them, and he drew out the snake’s head and, when he came to the wastebasket, dropped it in. “Thorry,” he said aloud. Lewis glanced at him.
It was guilt that was shutting him off from life, guilt toward his dead son, guilt toward his family, guilt in the face of the whole world, of God. James was devoted to high standards, but even as they were judging the rest of the world they were also judging him, poisoning his life. Toward the end of the novel James visits his friend Ed Thomas, and Ed, facing death from his heart condition, thinks back on the things in this world he will miss. His words sing a beautiful hymn to the ways of nature, of man, to the nature of things as they are. James understands, as he hears Ed speak, that the good life involves acceptance, not judgment, that he should have accepted Richard and then could have shown his love for him, that he should have accepted those weaknesses in himself that he so much feared. It is only after his visit to the hospital that he finds himself able to forgive others, accept forgiveness for himself, and as he does so the whole of his past opens up to him again.
Following his long evening at the Pages’, Terence Parks, one of the young musicians, elaborates a theory of art. He sees that there are two kinds of music, which he labels real music and work music. Work music is that which has something else behind it; it might be the setting of a poem, the score of a ballet. Real music is a higher form because it is liberated, free to be itself, is not trying to say anything but is trying simply to be, as music, and in so doing expresses all life’s “monstrosity and beauty.” Gardner ultimately is, with October Light, making a statement about art. Smugglers is like work music, aiming at a certain audience, at commercial success, trying in a muddled way to make a statement about the modern world, but the larger story in October Light, the story of the Pages, is simply reflecting life, celebrating it, allowing it to be. The October light in Vermont that gives the novel its title is variously seen. Lewis Hicks at one point sees it casting beauty over the landscape; James Page, in a moment of despair, believes it exposes all the world’s rottenness. It is the October light, the deep colors of autumn before the long sleep of winter, that James and Sally are living in. The light reveals different things depending on one’s perspective, and art helps shape that perspective. We are not much helped by the perspective that The Smugglers of Lost Soul’s Rock affords, but any reader should be deeply grateful for the larger setting of October Light.