Gardner’s Split World

July 21, 1933: John Gardner was born on this day in 1933. Gardner’s biographers agree that the trauma which shaped Gardner’s short, often reckless life — he died at age forty-nine in a motorcycle accident — was his role in the accidental death of his six-year-old brother, Gardner then eleven. The first five pages of Barry Silesky’s 2004 biography, John Gardner: Literary Outlaw are devoted to the horrible event; the following is from an account by David Stanton, currently researching a new Gardner biography:

In the spring of 1945, young John was driving a tractor back to the family farm in upstate New York, towing a cultipacker — essentially a set of giant steel rollers weighing over a ton. His 4-year-old sister, Sandy, and 6-year-old brother, Gilbert, had come along for the ride; while Sandy sat on John’s lap, Gilbert rode on the bar in between tractor and cultipacker…. Not far from the Gardner farm, the tractor ran out of gas on an incline; the whole caravan lurched, and Gilbert was thrown to the ground. The cultipacker, with its great weight, continued to roll, crushing Gilbert.
Gardner would later say that he had turned around to see his brother half covered by the massive drums, and, according to one version of the story, he made a split-second decision not to reach for the brakes because he believed Gilbert would rather be dead than paralyzed. Although the brakes on the old tractor almost certainly could not have made a whit of difference … the feeling that he had snuffed out Gilbert’s life through carelessness and perhaps even intentional negligence haunted Gardner to his death.

Gardner’s parents did everything they could to convince him that he was blameless; but every evening for an entire year, they also set a place for their dead son at the family dinner table.

In Grendel, Gardner’s table-turned account of the Beowulf story, the hero is a demonized poet-at-heart, and a monster only by default. When Grendel overhears the Shaper’s harp-tale of how the world was first split into darkness and light and how he was fated to the dark side, he flees in despair:

I ran to the center of the forest and fell down panting. My mind was wild. “Pity,” I moaned, “O pity! Pity!” I wept — strong monster with teeth like a shark’s — and I slammed the earth with such force that a seam split open twelve feet long. “Bastards!” I roared. “Sons of bitches! Fuckers!” Words I’d picked up from men in their rages. I wasn’t even sure what they meant, though I had an idea: defiance, rejection of the gods that, for my part, I’d known all along to be lifeless sticks.