Over break I knocked off John Gardner's October Light (1976) -- part of my ongoing effort to read as much American fiction from the '50s through '70s as I can manage.
A friend had recommended this particular novel after whetting my interest by lending me Gardner's The King's Indian (1974). In that volume of stories, there were easily readable realist narrators side by side with Poelike spinners of the fantastic and fabulists of a kind of medieval allegorical mode, with, in the long title story, a crazy blending of Hawthorne, Melville and Poe -- and Coleridge's Ancient Mariner -- that behaved both as deliberate homage and raucous pastiche, and that boiled down to some oddly cryptic ideas of Gardner's own about imagination and the magic transformations of storytelling.
In October Light both sides of Gardner -- the realist and fantasist -- are still in evidence (the latter featured in set-pieces of the novel one character is reading), but it's the painstaking evocations of a cranky, elderly brother and sister in Vermont that resonate most. The townsfolk, all deftly drawn, aren't particularly effective except as stand-ins for "issues" (racism, by way of a Mexican priest in their white midst; hip, or at least progressive, clericalism; attenuated gestures of liberalism on the part of Democrat sister Sally; entrenched conservatism gradually softening on the part of Republican brother James). What comes through most is Gardner's affectionate grasp of the All-American crank, the backwoodsman, the self-reliant farmer, the truculent, morose and diligent ideal of Emersonian individualism.
The rejection of the '70s, as the inevitable encroachment of the insipid culture we take for granted, is dramatized by James shooting out Sally's TV, the start of the contretemps (as Dylan said, "sometimes you just gotta do like Elvis did and shoot the damn thing out") the novel dwells on. Central to the patching up of that conflict is coming to terms with ghosts -- the death of Sally's beloved Horace (who makes me think of a benign, old American poet -- like Robert Frost's PR) and the suicide of James' eldest son.
Against this familiar family saga terrain, Gardner, for some reason, sets a "lurid" tale of drug-running boats and orgies and electrocuted black brigands and a suicidal protagonist and a wheelchair-bound Roderick Usheresque "evil genius" and Pearl, a black maid with a story of the streets. If it were written in the slap and dazzle of, say, Tom Robbins, or even the ersatz hipness of Maileresque maundering, it might work as an entertaining riposte to the "novel of today" in its junk culture search of pop apotheosis (it seems that a flying saucer actually does appear -- Sally at that point chucks the book, only to pick it up again), but only the fact that Sally remains shut in her room motivates her to keep reading it. Its "readableness" is never particularly beguiling and is at times gratuitous.
But something about the use of that novel is indicative: it's not a parody, it's not really a commentary (in another mode) on the main action. Both possibilities present themselves, but Gardner seems not engaged enough by the novel within the novel to want to make it do any real work. It's more like he just wants to take little holidays from the main business: the eventual grudging reconciliation of a stubborn old woman and her tyrannical brother, a tale that has more than enough to commend it, but which could benefit from more elaboration (particularly in terms of back story) than it gets.
There is a sense though that the pulp novel is meant to show the transformative powers of fiction, in another register. At one point Sally entertains notions of sexual activity that she hasn't ever given thought to in quite that way. So, any fiction that can make "the blood to mutine in a matron's bones" must have some saving grace? Maybe so.
Shooting out the set leads to reading and, as Van Morrison sings, getting "down to what is really wrong," the moral, I suppose of the whole thing, and the thing about Gardner (which still makes me keep him at arm's length) is that some kind of moral is at work in his fiction in ways that suggest to me that his target audience is still able to be "scandalized" by certain kinds of fictional freedom, that he himself is still coming to grips with the kind of "yarn" you can't air in prime time around the family hearth. In other words, he meets that supreme challenge offered by Austen's fiction: he knows his characters. But I'm not so sure he knows his audience.