Friday, September 05, 2008

John Gardner's Ghost

When I went to my mailbox at work today I found a book that was sent, as the slip of paper tucked inside indicated, “With the compliments of the publisher.” Textbook publishers send college professors many books we never ask for in the hope we will adopt one as a required text. But this unsolicited book was something different. It was a copy of John Gardner’s novel, Mickelsson’s Ghosts, originally published in 1982, just months before Gardner was killed in a motorcycle accident.

John Gardner was a wildly talented American novelist and medieval scholar, and I was briefly his student in the mid-1970s. At that time, I was a graduate student in English Literature at Southern Illinois University, where Gardner was a professor who had just achieved national acclaim for Grendel, his retelling of Beowulf from the point of view of the monster, and The Sunlight Dialogues, a New York Times bestselling counterculture novel. I have written about Gardner’s brief and controversial career in an op-ed piece “John Gardner’s Lesson about Teaching.”

After Gardner’s death, many of his novels went out of print. Grendel remains very popular because many college professors assign it as a companion to the study of Beowulf, but all his other novels faded away. Because I knew Gardner and took his graduate-level Chaucer seminar, I followed his career long after leaving school, read most of his books, and collected copies of almost everything he published.

I’ve enjoyed many of the Gardner books I’ve read, but for years, I avoided his hefty final novel Mickelsson’s Ghosts. Then in 2006 I read Barry Silesky’s biography, John Gardner: Literary Outlaw, and was inspired to take on Mickelsson. It was wonderful. My favorite Gardner novel to date. In an review I wrote:
This book is a gem. The main character is a troubled philosophy professor who is sometimes difficult to like, but the book itself is one to love. It is philosophical work, but it is also part ghost story, part mystery, and part romance. The pages just keep turning, and the ending does not disappoint.

In the meantime, I learned that New Directions had committed to bringing back into print paperback editions of four of Gardner’s novels. Soon the word came out that three of these titles had been decided. The first would be Gardner’s National Book Critics Circle Award winning, October Light, followed by the bestseller Sunlight Dialogues, and Gardner’s pastoral romance, Nickel Mountain. The final novel had not been chosen, and I took it upon myself to contact New Directions by email to urge them to give serious consideration to Mickelsson’s Ghosts. I pointed out that Mickelsson’s average Amazon readers rating was higher than the other three novels they had chosen to publish. Elsewhere in my review, I wrote:
I am hoping New Directions will choose to reissue this novel, along with the other Gardner books they are bringing back into print. To overlook it would be a big mistake.

An editor at the press wrote back to assure me that Mickelsson was being given serious consideration.

When Nickel Mountain was reissued last year, I bought a copy and was delighted when I found a page among the front matter with the heading ALSO BY JOHN GARDNER from New Directions. Of course, the other reissued novels were listed, but at the bottom of the page were the words “Forthcoming MICHELSSON’S GHOSTS.” I was thrilled.

Then today a copy of the new edition of Mickelsson’s Ghosts came in the mail. The book is nicely constructed and includes photographs by the author’s son, Joel Gardner, that illustrated the original volume. The US Postal Service envelope containing the book had been addressed to my office by hand, but inside there was no letter of explanation. I did not need one. I am a psychology professor, and although I receive many books “compliments of the publisher,” I am never sent novels. This was one of John Gardner’s ghosts, sent as a thank you.


Joel Gardner said...

Thank you for the news that MG is back in print. I'm glad you took it upon yourself to lobby New Directions for its choice; many of us were hoping that would be the book they went with, though it got critically slammed at the time of its original publication, largely due to a tidal wave of resentment over On Moral Fiction. I'm sure my copy will arrive soon, but I'm delighted to hear they did go with using the original photos. We had that discussion, but I never heard the final outcome. (The cover photo is different: the collage is of a picture of the house Dad lived in at the time he wrote MG, taken during the time of its composition.)


– Joel.

the unreliable narrator said...

Oh well done! It is a magnificent novel—my partner read it aloud to me winter before last, and I then read October Light on my own, stunned that neither book is more widely taught or read, never mind how many literary enemies JG made in his lifetime. They're just wonderful, wonderful pieces of writing, which deserve as wide an audience as possible.

It's especially nice to hear that one made its way to you in that quiet way books have. Thank you for your efforts, and for this post—off to look at your editorial piece now!