The Magic Gardner


NEITHER JAMES Joyce nor Thomas Mann ever rode around on a motorcycle. Although Joyce and Mann had some early personal crises and maintained some idiosyncracies throughout their careers, both of their lives conformed to the stereotype of how writers are supposed to behave. They spent most of their time writing and, when not writing, they took long walks to ponder the weighty issues of their day or gave lectures at prestigious universities. They were not social. They did not go to wild parties, preferring instead the more contemplative pleasures of group readings with other famous writers and intellectuals.

The Sunlight Dialogues

By John Gardner

Vintage Books; 746 pp.; $6.95.

John Gardner did ride around on a motorcycle--in fact, he died when one he was riding crashed in 1982--and this mode of transportation may help explain why Gardner was never fully accepted by the academic and critical circles of his time. Some critics, citing Gardner's talent for characterizing the physical detail and philosophical outlook of Middle America, classed this medievalist-turned-author among the top American writers of the 20th century. Many others, however, found that beneath a flashy surface humour and topicality, Gardner's works lacked the depth of Ulysses or The Magic Mountain.

WITH THEIR recent reissue of--among other Gardner books--The Sunlight Dialogues, his lengthiest and best work, Vintage Books is helping to resolve that controversy. There was always the suspicion that because Gardner's books were set in the 1960's and reflected the turbulence of that period so well, they were somehow limited to that time. Yet even though we are now in the latter half of the the supposedly calm and reflective '80s, The Sunlight Dialogues, first published in 1972, is as fresh and pertinent as ever.

The Sunlight Dialogues is a book about law and order combatting chaos. The two sides of this battle are personified by the book's two main characters, one an ineffectual police chief named Fred Clumly, the other a crazed magician who calls himself The Sunlight Man. They are brought together in a small community in upstate New York after the Sunlight Man is arrested for painting the word "LOVE" in large letters across and entrance to the New York State Thruway. With the aid of his conjuring tricks, The Sunlight Man breaks out of jail and begins to conduct a series of dialogue with Clumly, who is trying haplessly to apprehend him.

What makes this overt dichotomy interesting is the critical light Gardner casts upon our traditional concepts of law, order, justice, protest, and individual rights. Representing the law, Clumly suggests that the essence of the law-abiding citizen is a capacity to overlook the obvious injustices--let alone the small annoyances--of daily life:

It was of course not true that the prisoner's way of talking was noticeably Californian. But Clumly hated California, or anyway felt alarmed by it...Clumly's wife was a blind woman with bright glass eyes and small, pinched features and a body as white as his own. Her small shoulders sagged and her neck was long, so that her head seemed to sway above her like a hairy sunflower. He minded the way she filled her teacup one finger over the rim to watch the level, and he minded the way she talked to herself perpetually, going about the house with her lips moving as though she were some kind of old-fashioned priestess forever at her praying, or insane. Also, she whined. But Clumly was not bitter. 'Nobody' life is perfect,' he sometimes said to himself, which was true.

In contrast and in competition with Clumly's resigned attitude is The Sunlight Man's rebellious anarchy. From the start, The Sunlight Man represents a chaotic presence somehow beyond the Clumly's comprehension:

For all his elaborate show of indifference, for all his clowning, his play-acting, his sometimes arrogant, sometimes mysteriously gentle defiance and mocking of both prisoners and guards, he sweated prodigiously, throughout his stay, from what must have been nervousness. He talked a great deal, in a way that at times made you think of a childlike rabbi or sweet, mysteriously innocent old Russian priest and at others times reminded you of an elderly archeologist in his comfortable classroom, musing and harking back...He pretended to enjoy the official opinion of the court, that he might be mad. 'I am the Rock,' he said thoughtfully, nodding. 'I am Captain Marvel.'''

THE FASCINATION of the interaction between these two characters is that, for all his faith in law and order, Clumly slowly begins to realize the ways in which the society he defends is full of injustice. Through his conversations with The Sunlight Man, it dawns on Clumly that his function as a police officer is merely to preserve the appearance of order in a society rife with crime. As the outlaw magician tells him: "I care about every single case. You care about nothing but the average. I love justice. You love the law."

Yet Gardner is not so naive that he holds up the chaotic protest of The Sunlight Man as an ideal to be striven for. It is clear by the end of The Sunlight Dialogues that it is the Clumlys of the world who have real impact, while Sunlight Men tend to burn out from their own fiery natures. We see this in the scene in which one of Clumly's officers finally apprehends The Sunlight Man:

And it came to Figlow that it was a joke. The Sunlight Man had no intention of shooting him. He had come to give up, broken by grief, but in the madness of his trickster vanity or maybe just human vanity he could not resist one final laugh at the childish cruelty of man, one last indifferent or partly indifferent sneer, or maybe one final ridiculous pretense that he was still indifferent, still had dignity. By the time the joke came clear, it was too late. Figlow had shot him through the heart.

IT IS this paradox that gives The Sunlight Dialogues its depth. Whereas law and order are fundamentally unjust, but able to survive, protest and chaos are incapable of enduring. Although The Sunlight Dialogues is set in the 1960s and uses the lingo of that decade, Gardner's book is far closer to the nightmare pessimism of Kafka's The Trial or Canetti's Auto-Da-Fe than to the hippie philosophizing of Zen and the Art of Motorcycle Maintenance.

The depth of The Sunlight Dialogues alone merits Gardner's ranking among the top novelists of this century. It is not merely a recitation of unrealistic '60s ideology, but an inquiry into the causes of that ideology and why it didn't and couldn't work. And, after all, a decade as chaotic and confused as the 1960s demands a man on a motorcycle as its chonicler.

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