Magazine article The American Conservative

Gardnering at Night

Magazine article The American Conservative

Gardnering at Night

Article excerpt

How many of us share a hometown with our favorite writer? Anais Nin and Ayn Rand did, but I'm not talking about self-love. Since I wasn't born in West Point or Sauk Center or Baltimore or Henry County, I'm outta luck. But we play the hand we're dealt, which is why on a Saturday evening for the last dozen Octobers about 20 of us have gathered to read from the works of Batavia's John Gardner, the once prominent novelist whose audacious ambition was to reinfuse American literature with a moral purpose.

Gardner, one of the last American writers to grow up on a farm, was a hippie Republican anarchist who explained his politics to the Atlantic: " am, on the one hand, a kind of New York State Republican, conservative. On the other hand, I am a kind of bohemian type. I really don't obey the laws. I mean to, but if I am in a hurry and there is no parking here, I park."

His best-known novel--the only one still read, as far as I can tell--is Grendel (1971), told from the Beowolfian monster's point of view. He set The Resurrection (1966) and The Sunlight Dialogues (1972) in our town, to which he dreamed of returning and finally did in a coffin, killed in a 1982 motorcycle accident. Here he is buried and remembered, even as English departments shoot him from the canon.

Our literary-culinary venue is the Pokadot, Gardner's favorite diner, the unselfconsciously funky eatery at the epicenter of the Italian-Polish southside. (Gardner, a Welsh Presbyterian, frequently teased his people for their anti-Italian-Catholic prejudices while sharing them: a neat way to have your torta and eat it too.) A middling speller, Gardner wrote his mother--a former English teacher--just before The Sunlight Dialogues came out boasting that in the book he had set a scene in the diner and spelled "Polkadot" correctly. Alas, in a nod, perhaps, to simplified spelling, the diner dispenses with that silent "l."

Pokadot readers have included Gardner's family and friends and people mentioned in his books, but most of us--teachers, a dairy salesman, our independent bookseller, and my wife, daughter, and I--know him only through the stories he wrote and the stories that are told about him still. (My dad, a few years behind him in school, said that Gardner was "weird.")

A few regulars sit at the counter and sip coffee, bemused by the proceedings--maybe even edified, I like to kid myself. …

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