On a rainy evening in September, 1972, when I was 24 years old and a master's degree philosophy student at Southern Illinois University, I drifted quite by accident, and with no knowledge of how radically my life would be changed, into the orbit of novelist John Gardner. Naturally, I knew of him before we met in his workshop, "Professional Writing," which convened at his farmhouse, stocked with horses and dogs and musical instruments, on Boskeydell Road in Carbondale, Illinois. (He adjusted our class time so he could watch the Kung Fu television series, which he at first found interesting as a blend of the American Western and Chinese history, then annoying when he realized that the show's writers were passing off pop existentialism, which he hated, for Eastern thought.)
He was a local celebrity, the subject of remarkable legends, and had a hoard of loyal admirers, young and old - English majors and aspiring writers - constantly at his heels after he published Grendel, the book that cemented his reputation among critics; and that fall The Sunlight Dialogues, his triple-decker bestseller, would hit the bookstores and catapult him toward a decade of fame, coast-to-coast teaching, and controversy. Friends of mine took his courses on the epic, Old English, and medieval literature; they swapped stories about his classroom presence (he recited The Canterbury Tales whole cloth out of his head) and about his testy judgments of contemporary literature ("You've been duped," he told colleagues seduced by critical fads popular in the early seventies), and of course they chattered about his long-stemmed, churchwarden pipes and the striking silver mane he swept back from his eyes when talking with tobacco-blackened fingertips. (Rumor had it that he was a Republican, that his hair mysteriously turned white when he was 19, that he'd accidentally killed his younger brother while operating dangerous farm equipment, and that he was driven to write greatly to win back his parents' love.)
They also said that Gardner, then age 39, was probably the bitterest man they'd ever known, because for fifteen years he wrote in virtual obscurity as an underpublished author whose closet spilled open with brilliant, original fiction. Enrolling in his course, which I'd seen an advertisement for in the local paper, where I worked part-time, I wasn't sure what to expect from him, if my skin was thick enough to work with someone I'd heard once wrestled another writer to the floor because he disagreed with him.
At his home, I plopped three of the six unpublished novels I'd written in two years down on the meadhall-sized table in his dining room. Far from seeming like an ogre, Gardner, wearing wrinkled bluejeans that day and a white shirt that curved around his slight paunch, came across as kind. There was nothing phony or pretentious about him; he was the very portrait of self-confidence, but also self-mocking, and deeply involved in the work of the chattering students crammed into his house. "You're faking the emotions in that poem," he observed after a smug young man finished reading. "You haven't felt any of the things you're talking about." (For Gardner, fixing creative problems was often tantamount to curing the writer's soul.) Finally, at the end of class, he turned to me, squinting suspiciously at my pile of manuscripts ten inches deep, and said, "What do you want with me? It's obvious you can write." I said, yes, but not to the satisfaction of a few editors who'd told me my fiction could be improved in the areas of voice and rhythm. "Oh," he said it the way Bill Gates might if you mentioned software, "I can help you with that."
I asked if I could skip his class (the other students all struck me as beginners) and just meet him in his office when I had chapters of a new novel to show. Gardner hesitantly agreed to this, then probably regretted his decision when, two weeks later, he read my first pages for Faith and the Good Thing. …