JOHN GARDNER by Barry Silesky


The Life and Death of a Literary Outlaw
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Breezy appreciation by Silesky (Ferlinghetti, 1990, etc.), presenting the novelist as less an “outlaw” than a conventional man with a modest talent, a fierce drive, and a gift for self-destruction.

Best known for the “metafictions” Grendel (1971) and The Sunlight Dialogues (1972), as well as his divisive polemic On Moral Fiction (1978), Gardner was born in 1934 on a farm in Batavia, New York. When he was 11 years old and at the wheel of a tractor, he ran over and killed his six-year-old brother Gilbert. Silesky suggests that for the rest of his abbreviated life the guilt and horror associated with this death fueled Gardner’s prodigious writing, not to mention his nonstop drinking, womanizing, and physical risk-taking. While still in college at Washington University, he married his first cousin Joan, had two children, and began a lifetime habit of all-night writing, though he wouldn’t be commercially published for a dozen years. Already a heavy drinker, he entered the Iowa Writers’ Workshop and went on to teach at Oberlin, Bennington, and other small colleges in the farming communities to which he gravitated. Wherever Gardner went, he seemed to try but fail to duplicate his early family life; drinking, rowdy parties, affairs with students, violent arguments with Joan, and frequent physical mishaps that put him in the hospital were the ever-intensifying distractions against which his nine novels, two collections of stories, and half-dozen books of criticism took shape and began to flourish. By all accounts Gardner was a generous man, a brilliant teacher, and a moderately original writer, although in the 1970s public fights with his literary peers and charges of plagiarism dogged him. Divorced twice, he died in a motorcycle accident at age 48 on the eve of his third wedding after a night of heavy drinking. If there is more to his life and work than this, Silesky doesn’t record it.

Primarily of interest to devoted fans and those who knew Gardner.

Pub Date: Jan. 23rd, 2004
ISBN: 1-56512-218-6
Page count: 320pp
Publisher: Algonquin
Review Posted Online:
Kirkus Reviews Issue: Nov. 1st, 2003