Redemption by John Gardner, 1981

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by John Gardner, 1981

Of the 19 stories in John Gardner's two published collections, The King's Indian (1974) and The Art of Living (1981), "Redemption" remains the most potent and memorable. Perhaps not accidentally, it is also the most personal and direct, least given to the sort of metafiction fireworks often on display in its companion pieces as well as in the bulk of Gardner's virtuoso novels.

"Redemption," which originally appeared in The Atlantic in May 1977, uses a traumatic event from the author's rural childhood that is handled less successfully by "Stillness" (1975), also in The Art of Living. Age 11 at the time, Gardner was driving a tractor, with a younger sister in his lap and a younger brother astride a bar yoking the tractor to a two-ton cultipacker, when the tractor, out of gas, suddenly shuddered to a stop. His brother fell off the bar and under the cultipacker, dying almost instantly.

There seems to have been little that Gardner could have done to save his brother, but natural guilt intensified over the years, sharpening the author's always keen ethical focus. In "Redemption," as first tracked by John M. Howell, the actual incident is altered to deepen the boy's responsibility and hence his moral dilemma. Named Jake Hawthorne, probably as a spur to recall the idea of original sin in Nathaniel Hawthorne's Puritan allegories, the protagonist recollects the event with near masochistic clarity: "Even at the last moment he could have prevented his brother's death by slamming on the tractor's brakes … but he was unable to think, or, rather, thought unclearly."

The story's initial concentration is on the father, limned as a genial, sensitive, intelligent man with a talent for writing and reciting poetry, "a celebrity, in fact, as much Romantic poet-hero as his time and western New York State could afford." He takes to suicidal brooding, aimless motorcycle trips, and a string of casual adulteries in the wake of his son's death. His ironic redemption, coming home to kneel and receive tearful forgiveness from a willing family, contrasts acutely with Jake's lonely self-savaging, but Jake's whispered "I hate you" is unheard by his father and the rest of the family.

The complexity of Jake's response, accusing himself of a monstrous evil and then projecting himself in his fantasies as a noble sufferer, causes further self-castigation. It drills to the hard heart of the tale's obsession with the artist figure, a modernist leitmotiv woven through most of Gardner's playfully postmodernist fiction. It also abets a familiar Shakespearean doubling device as Jake seeks solace through learning the French horn, a gift from his mother, and comes under the sway of the sort of father surrogate twentieth-century skepticism loves to supply as a priest's replacement. This is the arrogant Arcady Yegudkin, principal horn player in the czar's own orchestra before the Russian Revolution sent him across the ocean.

Yegudkin is the kind of artist character Gardner tended to push into mythic, shamanistic extremes, as with Taggert Hodge in The Sunlight Dialogues (1972), for example. But here realistic restraint governs to good effect. Although suitably outlandish in his affectations, which include arriving every Saturday morning to give lessons "like some sharp-eyed old Slavonic king" and being "one of the last men in Rochester, New York, to wear spats," the 70-year-old refugee stays within the realistic boundaries of the story. Testing a new horn at the climactic moment, he gives a brilliant performance that causes the stunned hero to blurt out, "You think I'll ever play like that?"

Yegudkin's incredulous, equally thoughtless response ("Play like me ?") slides home like Abraham's knife, leaving Jake at the edge of the extinction that has shaken him since his brother's death. Recognizing the terrible truth of Yegudkin's assessment of his aesthetic limitations, he is dazed and weeping as he heads home through a crowd of "Saturday-morning shoppers herding along irritably, meekly, through painfully bright light."

The power of the ending resides in Gardner's uncharacteristic refusal to let sentiment soften the cruel ambiguity of his alter ego's situation. If "home" is a key word, faintly intimating possible salvation, it is undercut by the mocking image of a "herd" of "meek" Christian souls dominating an indifferent earth and the apparent dearth of any firm, positive alternative to the loss of art's redemptive potential. Lack of genius in a universe where talent, not virtue, reigns supreme seems to leave scant room for imagination's magic. There is, in other words, no redemption except for the author of the story, who is able to write with such bleak precision about a private agony.

In contrast to The Art of Living 's title story, similarly convincing in regional texture but overburdened by conscious design, a forced sense of arty poignancy, the resonance achieved by "Redemption" stems from the harsh absence of an overt ethical grid. Jake's return to the street, to brute life and to "home," offers a possible reprise of Gilgamesh's return to kingly duties after banishing the ghost of Enkidu, his best friend and his self's animal half, in the Sumerian epic Gardner translated with John Maier. Furthermore, home offers the healing female forces of mother and sister, the child who brought him lunch when he was working in the field and who was an incarnation of life's simpler gifts.

Like literature and its creators, "Redemption" thus spirals inward to replicate the process of enduring an existence stained foul by mortality and a lost godhead, which guarantees its own survival.

—Edward Butscher