I carry with me several fanciful images of John Gardner as a writer. One of them is of a backwoods preacher, a bit wild-eyed, a bit long-winded, contemptuous of city slickers, and proud of a pulpit voice that can shiver the timbers at the back of the church. This is the fellow who grew up in western New York not far from that “burnt-over ground” on which so many offshoots of the Puritan decadence flourished weedily in the nineteenth century—Mormons, Spiritualists, Shakers, and the Perfectionists of the Oneida Community. He is the author of generally uplifting books full of rural wisdom and small-town folkways—The Sunlight Dialogues, Nickel Mountain, and the authentic parts of October Light; he is also known for that scalding tract against contemporary triflers and sinners, On Moral Fiction. Another image is of a pipe-smoking academic, a medievalist with a Frodo haircut and a weakness for monsters, the creator of Grendel, the popularizer of Chaucer, the enthusiast of myth and epic and things gothic. Still another is of a hip philosopher, a classroom spellbinder eager to argue all night on the subject of the Good, the True, and the Beautiful.
The actual John Gardner is obviously a man of great productive energy, willing to try his skills in a wide range of genres, some of them distinctly archaic or unfashionable. Despite the triumph of Grendel, that admirable fantasy upon a Beowulfian theme, Gardner seems most successful as a realistic writer, especially when dealing unsentimentally with the farmers, hardware-store proprietors, small-town librarians, policemen, etc., whose attitudes, speech-rhythms, and habits he knows with a native’s undeceived intimacy.
I found October Light both moving and persuasive in its account of the quarrel between a stubborn, hard-bitten old Vermonter and his equally stubborn and spunky old sister. But in that novel, as in so much that Gardner has written, his undoubted powers are offset by startling lapses in taste or judgment. He is likely to introduce inappropriate material (i.e., the interpolated sections of a “trashy” paperback novel in October Light), to go on at excessive length, to wax philosophical at the expense of the work’s dramatic integrity, to bedeck his often impressive conceptions with too many flashing or dangling symbols. Perhaps the nadir of such judgmental lapses occurs in the recent Freddy’s Book, four-fifths of which is devoted to a tedious preLutheran fable, “King Gustave and the Devil,” purportedly written by the monstrous and pathetic Freddy of the book’s title.
His new book, Mickelsson’s Ghosts, is an immense, baggy novel, loosely packed with four or five plots, several competing genres, a small army of characters, and enough thematic material to fuel a dozen all-night bull-sessions. Its primary course of action concerns the upheavals—emotional, professional, and (in both senses) psychic—of a professor of philosophy, Peter Mickelsson, who (like Gardner) teaches at the State University of New York in Binghamton. Separated but not yet divorced from an embittered wife who devours most of his …