WHEN LAST SEEN in a fine short novel called Grendel, John Gardner was busy turning monsters into men—and vice versa. His highly compressed story sang and winced and gibbered in its metaphysical chains, but it said a good deal about the dark origins and necessary delusions of society. The Sunlight Dialogues, by contrast, is an enormous trick circus trunk out of which the author keeps taking new literary treasures as if they were so many fake bananas. A philosophical disquisition upon religion and justice? Yes. A compassionate portrait of America in the uneasy '60s? Yes. A Faulknerian melodrama complete with intricate violence, small-town dynastic decay and a cast of dozens? Yes, indeed.
Gardner has gone to some pains to have his book illustrated, something he says hasn't been done to a serious novel since Henry James's time. Like a 19th century novelist, too, he begins with a detailed list of characters. He pokes fun at 20th century realism by attaching a death certificate at the end of the book. No one should be fooled—or disappointed. For what we have here is not realism, but natural supernaturalism turned loose on middle America. Imagine Winesburg, Ohio or Faulkner's Sartor is as they might have been written by Samuel Taylor Coleridge. Bulging with genius and philosophy, the poet paints the dusty jailhouse and the bumptious mayor of Batavia, N.Y. He records the hairs in the disappointed husband's stew, quotes upbeat statistics from the Reader's Digest. But with the same acceptance of reality he observes the growling of the mastiff bitch as dark spirits pass, repeals the laws of gravity at will and marks the fall of the dead ("And every soul, it passed me by, like the whiz of my cross-bow"). The Sunlight Dialogues has almost as high a mortality rate as The Ancient Mariner.
Gardner's landlocked mariner is named Fred Clumly. Clumly is the police chief of Batavia, a small (and real) town in the western tip of New York. Clumly glumly delivers speeches on the topic Law and Order. He uses words like cognizant a lot and figures hippies are feckless or degenerate, or both. The state of California he considers a plague area likely to infect the rest of America. In short, given the temper of the times, Clumly seems bound for a caricature pig-of-the-week award, or else a New Centurion's badge for meritorious service. Instead, Gardner pits poor old Clumly against the Sunlight Man, a brilliant existential philosopher, French horn player, gadfly, madman, magician, murderer, idealist and Shavian exponent of Babylonian religion and the new consciousness. But when the smoke and the rhetoric and some cadavers have been cleared away, there stands Clumly (much humbled and wiser) as, by God, some kind of confused, committed, ignorant, rumpled, preposterous champion of Western culture.
What happens to Clumly at the hands of the Sunlight Man in between shouldn't happen to Offissa Pupp embroiled with Krazy Kat and Ignatz Mouse. The police chief is lured into a church at night and jawed at from the pulpit (bravely, he keeps his pocket tape recorder whirring). He is hung in a tent under a railroad bridge without a time-table in the path of a train—a metaphor for the condition of man. He is invited to a nice chat in a crypt where the Sunlight Man emerges from a creaky coffin to talk some more.
Like nearly everyone in the book, though, Clumly already has doubts about where America is heading and inner misgivings about law and order in general. Is it just? Above all, does it work in America? "The old order changes, giving way to the new," he mumbles to himself at a funeral, "but where is the new?" Knowing this, the Sunlight Man tries to get at Clumly by exploring history and first causes. The whole trouble with the U.S., he says, goes back to Judaism and its poisonous offshoot Christianity. Before that, in Babylon as elsewhere, men and gods were passive, not puffed up. The world was a place of magic and cyclical mystery; neither men nor gods could fully know or hope to modify its rhythms, benign or otherwise. Then along came Moses with those terrible notions about responsible men and an I-and-thou God. All hell broke loose. Delusions of grandeur. Guilt and retribution. Law and order, first from God, then applied by man to man. The world as private property with men acting righteously as if they owned it. Nationalism. Majority rule.
Clumly tries to defend democracy. "Bunch of people get together, and they decide how they want things, and they pass a law, and they have 'em that way till they're sick of it, and then they pass some other law." The Sunlight Man will have none of it. Democracy is inevitably an armed truce. The rule of the majority is foolish, because it is based on the false assumption that the majority will be reasonable. And out comes the familiar proposition: if 52% of a country is Nazi and 48% is Jewish, what's majority rule worth then? Or chatter about the greatest good for the greatest number?
Untenable. In such confrontation Clumly naturally loses every round. He never realizes that all faiths and formulas, pushed to extremes, are untenable. Only occasionally, rambling around town trying to quiet the wave of crime and fear that the Sunlight Man has helped stir in Batavia, he comes upon a useful, stopgap reply. There is a time, for instance, when he orders a ham on rye at a diner and mildly complains when it is all fat. "Waitress says, 'Don't look at me sir, I just work here.' Everybody just works here. If the sandwiches are gonna be fit to eat, somebody's got to behave as if he owned the place."
It is the view of many novelists these days—most of them living in New York—that America is so jammed with grotesques and hypocrites that no self-respecting writer can deal with it realistically. There may be a sliver of truth in the position. Besides, it spares them the inexpressible mess and anguish of creating character, of having to come back red-handed from explorations of the ordinary human heart, that crucial terrain they prefer to leave in the rude possession of potboilers.
If Gardner's book consisted mainly of the Sunlight Dialogues he would simply get his A for ingenuity as well as a few "Ahs" for cleverness and learning. A few people would marvel (as they will anyway, and justly) at the great skill he shows in blending resonances from such things as the Divine Comedy, the Revelations of St. John and the Sumerian epic of Gilgamesh with a story whose surfaces occasionally resemble All in the Family. Happily Gardner is on record as believing that a novelist should tolerate, even affirm the banal and the ordinary. "When Dickens wept over Little Nell," he says, "it was not because he was a subtle metaphysician. He mistook her for human."
The Sunlight Man, therefore, eventually turns out to be Taggert Hodge, a member of one of Batavia's first families. The Hodges are all of them downwardly mobile from the great days of Congressman Hodge, an upright late 19th century liberal with a smile that could make the corn grow and the voters turn out at the polls. Taggert Hodge's search for vengeance triggers the series of jailbreaks, murders and accidents that pass for plot and which, like Faulkner, Gardner feeds his public in small chunks to keep them turning pages. What matters, of course, are the Hodges themselves, whose various minds and lives Gardner inhabits for hours, days and years until, when the book is at its best, the reader breathes in their world, feels their heartbeats and through them absorbs an extraordinary meditation on America's past hopes projected upon its present fears.
There are many asides, bit-part players, odd corners of narrative, even a haunting interior monologue by Clumly's blind wife. Gardner explores everything with love and forbearance, like an old-fashioned novelist who has forgotten he must compete with television, sex books and the Good Life for the raddled reader's attention. No matter. Raddled or not, readers should ignore the flaws. Swallow the magic apples. Brush up on terza rima (to identify those snippets of The Inferno that Gardner can't keep from including). Borrow a French dictionary (to translate Gardner's morsels of French). But press on at all costs to the end. The masterpiece to be found there is Clumly's final speech on law and order, which shapes and caps the book as Molly Bloom's soliloquy shapes and caps Ulysses. Somehow eluding all his own built-in progressive rhetoric—about the usefulness of supermarkets in India and the righteousness of justice—the police chief stumbles toward a single sentence, a perception of his lot in the world.
The sentence: God be kind to all Good Samaritans and also bad ones. For such is the Kingdom of Heaven. Not much new there, one may argue. And in fact it is a kind of repetition, for the novel begins with a more secular version of the same message, from the I Ching: The earth in its devotion carries all things, good and evil, without exception. The trick, of course, is to retrieve such knowledge from abstraction, to release it from the prison of rhetoric and piety, until it seems to grow out of, and even faintly encompass, the pain of a passionate lifetime.