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John Gardner: The Life and Death of a Literary Outlaw

John Gardner: The Life and Death of a Literary Outlaw

by Barry Silesky

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For a decade—from 1973 to 1982—John Gardner was one of America's most famous writers and certainly its most flamboyantly opinionated. His 1973 novel, The Sunlight Dialogues, was on the New York Times bestseller list for fourteen weeks. Once in the limelight, he picked public fights with his peers, John Barth, Joseph Heller, and Norman Mailer among them,


For a decade—from 1973 to 1982—John Gardner was one of America's most famous writers and certainly its most flamboyantly opinionated. His 1973 novel, The Sunlight Dialogues, was on the New York Times bestseller list for fourteen weeks. Once in the limelight, he picked public fights with his peers, John Barth, Joseph Heller, and Norman Mailer among them, and wrote five more bestsellers.

Gardner's personal life was as chaotic as his writing life was prolific. At twenty, he married his cousin Joan, and after a long marriage that was both passionate and violent, left her for Liz Rosenberg, a student. Only a few years later, he left Rosenberg for another student, Susan Thornton. Famous for disregarding his own safety, he rode his motorcycle at crazy speeds, incurred countless concussions, and once broke both of his arms. He survived what was diagnosed as terminal colon cancer only to resume his prodigious drinking and to die in a motorcycle accident at age forty-nine, a week before his third wedding.

Biographer Barry Silesky captures John Gardner's fabulously contradictory genius and his capacity to both dazzle and infuriate. He portrays Gardner as a man of unrestrained energy and blatant contempt for convention and also as a man whose charisma drew students and devoted followers wherever he went. Amazingly, Gardner published twenty-nine books in all, including eleven fiction titles, a book-length epic poem, six books of medieval criticism, and a major biography. Twenty-one years after his death, his On Moral Fiction and The Art Of Fiction are still read and debated in MFA programs across the country.

This is a full-scale biography of a writer who was, for ten years, almost bigger than life. It lives up to its subject magnificently.

Editorial Reviews

The New Yorker
Gardner, who in the nineteen-seventies published a number of best-selling literary novels (“The Sunlight Dialogues,” “October Light”), was a singularly cantankerous and inspiring figure. By the time he died, in a motorcycle accident at the age of forty-nine, he had produced not only novels but story collections, librettos, studies of medieval literature, translations of epic poems, instructional manuals for writers, and the CliffsNotes for “Le Morte d’Arthur” (which he wrote in one night with the help of two pitchers of martinis). Silesky overreaches when he argues that Gardner’s advocacy of moral fiction turned the critical tide against metafictionists such as John Barth and Robert Coover. Still, his engaging, if sometimes cursory account reminds us of this writer’s enormous energy and range.
The New York Times
In John Gardner: Literary Outlaw, the poet Barry Silesky provides a deft portrait of the ''fiery outlaw eccentric,'' an image Silesky says Gardner cultivated. He sensitively traces Gardner's life and the development of his writing. He concludes that Gardner (1933-82) left a body of work that, as he said of good books, helps us ''to know what we believe, reinforces those qualities that are noblest in us, leads us to feel uneasy about our faults and limitations.'' — Sherie Posesorski
Publishers Weekly
In the 1960s and '70s, when literary authors had the widespread appeal of rock stars, John Gardner was the perfect icon of the era: a highly regarded novelist who partied hard and rode a motorcycle. Silesky's briskly paced biography follows the controversial author of The Sunlight Dialogues and other bestselling and critically acclaimed novels from his rural beginnings near Batavia, N.Y., to the motorcycle accident that killed him at the age of 49, days before his third wedding. In between, Gardner led an intense, active life, producing enormous amounts of fiction and medieval scholarship, writing librettos and children's books, and editing academic journals, all the while building a highly successful teaching career in which he mentored dozens of young writers. At the root of Gardner's frenetic race toward literary greatness was, according to Silesky (Ferlinghetti: The Artist in His Times), a tragic childhood accident-his younger brother was killed by a 1,500-pound farm machine that John was driving-that left him with a deep sense of guilt and of his own mortality. In Silesky's book, the alcoholic, emotionally and physically reckless Gardner plows into his success at full speed and then summarily self-destructs. Drawing from Gardner's interviews, lectures and autobiographical fiction, as well as the testimony of friends and relatives, Silesky's account is well researched, though his dull, expository writing never delves deep. But Gardner's combination of genius and excess makes him a powerfully compelling character, and this book will pique renewed interest in his vast body of work. Agent, Nat Sobel. (Jan. 23) Copyright 2003 Reed Business Information.
Library Journal
John Gardner's motorcycle death in 1982 silenced one of the most visible and vocal authors of the middle of the last century. Silesky's biography of this prominent American author tells of a man driven to recklessness and alcoholism after killing his younger brother in an accident on the family farm in rural New York. Gardner lived his life at full speed, writing 29 books (including 11 novels and six works of medieval criticism) and sparring publicly with his contemporaries, including Joseph Heller and Norman Mailer. His 1972 novel, The Sunlight Dialogues, spent 14 weeks on the New York Times best sellers list. He died at the age of 49 just days before his third wedding. While Silesky (Ferlinghetti: The Artist in His Times) fails to capture Gardner's charisma (or that of his times), this biography does bring to life a remarkable author who lived and wrote in an interesting era. Recommended for larger public and academic libraries.-Michele McGraw, Hennepin Cty. Lib., Edina, MN Copyright 2003 Reed Business Information.
School Library Journal
Adult/High School-From writing to drinking to preaching for moral art to his death at age 49 in a motorcycle accident, Gardner's life was nothing if not mythic. This fast-paced, highly readable biography draws a clear portrait of the writer as a human being. The book opens with the accidental death of his brother, Gilbert. According to Silesky, this tragedy became a source of pain that Gardner would always carry with him and one that would continually impact his fiction. After a brief detour into family background, the book traces the major points of its subject's artistic, critical, and academic life. It spends some time describing his major works, such as Grendel (Knopf, 1971), but these explications are simplified and may disappoint those looking for a more critical approach. They do, however, work well for general readers and will hopefully inspire some to search out Gardner's once-popular books. While Silesky obviously admires his subject's enormous drive and intense dedication to his art, he takes care to show how destructive this passion could be. He includes substantial quotations from family members, colleagues, and rivals, providing a balanced look at the man and his actions. He proves the real Gardner to be significantly more compelling than any myth.-Matthew L. Moffett, Northern Virginia Community College, Annandale Copyright 2004 Reed Business Information.
Kirkus Reviews
Breezy appreciation by Silesky (Ferlinghetti, 1990, etc.), presenting the novelist as less an "outlaw" than a conventional man with a modest talent, a fierce drive, and a gift for self-destruction. Best known for the "metafictions" Grendel (1971) and The Sunlight Dialogues (1972), as well as his divisive polemic On Moral Fiction (1978), Gardner was born in 1934 on a farm in Batavia, New York. When he was 11 years old and at the wheel of a tractor, he ran over and killed his six-year-old brother Gilbert. Silesky suggests that for the rest of his abbreviated life the guilt and horror associated with this death fueled Gardner's prodigious writing, not to mention his nonstop drinking, womanizing, and physical risk-taking. While still in college at Washington University, he married his first cousin Joan, had two children, and began a lifetime habit of all-night writing, though he wouldn't be commercially published for a dozen years. Already a heavy drinker, he entered the Iowa Writers' Workshop and went on to teach at Oberlin, Bennington, and other small colleges in the farming communities to which he gravitated. Wherever Gardner went, he seemed to try but fail to duplicate his early family life; drinking, rowdy parties, affairs with students, violent arguments with Joan, and frequent physical mishaps that put him in the hospital were the ever-intensifying distractions against which his nine novels, two collections of stories, and half-dozen books of criticism took shape and began to flourish. By all accounts Gardner was a generous man, a brilliant teacher, and a moderately original writer, although in the 1970s public fights with his literary peers and charges of plagiarism dogged him.Divorced twice, he died in a motorcycle accident at age 48 on the eve of his third wedding after a night of heavy drinking. If there is more to his life and work than this, Silesky doesn't record it. Primarily of interest to devoted fans and those who knew Gardner. Agent: Nat Sobel/Sobel Weber Associates

Product Details

Algonquin Books of Chapel Hill
Publication date:
Product dimensions:
5.90(w) x 8.75(h) x 1.27(d)
Age Range:
14 - 18 Years

Meet the Author

Barry Silesky is the author of Ferlinghetti: The Artist in His Time, a biography of poet and writer Lawrence Ferlinghetti, as well as two collections of poems and a book of "short shorts," One Thing That Can Save Us. Editor of the literary journal ACM (Another Chicago Magazine), he teaches at the School of the Art Institute of Chicago.

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