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by John Gardner

Pub Date: May 12th, 1986
ISBN: 0394544021
Publisher: Knopf

Novelist Nicholas Delbanco, Gardner's literary executor, has taken it upon himself to give to posthumous (and not intended to be published) Gardner manuscripts the pitiless light of day. Stillness, an autobiographical portrait, was, says Delbanco, undertaken by Gardner "as a process of therapy, as an exercise of recall engaged in with his wife." It's a picture of Gardner's first marriage: a whip-sharp woman, with nowhere special to put her natural talents, is married to a charismatic and rich but plodding novelist ("Very handsome. . .his prematurely silver hair flowing down his back. . .his English-Irish-Welsh voice singing through language . . .People wept, listening"). It is, in its mixture of vanity and complete self-absorption, a document of personal honesty--but to read it as anything approaching a novel is a little like giving a pool-maintenance contract to a narcissist. Gardner's insecurities and academic pomposities turn out to be the only really memorable elements. Did Delbanco do anyone a favor in bringing this to the public? The same tendentiousness obtains in Shadows--but here there's an alibi: it's an uncompleted work: about the Carbondale, Illinois, (one of the many places Gardner was an English teacher) detective, Gerald Craine, who's investigating a murder that enfolds him--and Gardner, all too gleefully--into long meditations on the paranormal, cognition and philosophical issues of consciousness. All intellectual fancy and very little else, it's a manuscript that Gardner himself seems not to have known what to do with. Yet the retrospective light it casts on the already published fiction is an interesting if not a happy one; the manuscript crystalizes Gardner's faults--pretentiousness, pedantry, contrariness, and shameless padding--and leaves you wondering if he was not a latter-day Thomas Wolfe. Delbanco's reconstruction brings up that question and also this one: with literary friends like this, do you need enemies?