The Novels of John Gardner grew from a chapter in Leonard Butts's 1979 dissertation to become the most recent addition to the long list of books about a writer whose reputation remains doggedly and surprisingly insecure. In taking "an obvious and necessary first step" away from the more or less critical introduction approach of his able predecessors, Greg Morris (A World of Order and Light, 1984) and David Cowart (Arches and Light, 1984), Butts does not so much strike out in a radically new direction as begin to fine tune earlier assessments, working toward a clearer and more specific understanding of Gardner's achievement by narrowing the discussion to the ways in which the main characters in Gardner's novels either succeed or fail as artists or as artist-figures. In making his case for "making life art as a moral process," as the book's awkward subtitle puts it, Butts does not challenge Gardner's definition of, or self-proclaimed faith in, "moral art," but he does explain what many have, perhaps willfully, failed to notice: that for Gardner, morality and moral fiction are never didactic, always evolving toward the goal of "aesthetic wholeness." Butts's readings are closely argued and sharply focused; his pairings of the ten novels in five chapters on the basis of similar characters, settings, ideas, or (in the case of stillness and shadows) chance circumstances, rather than order of publication, yield interesting results, including new insights into the ways in which compassion, community, saintly intercessors, and ominous strangers figure in Gardner's work. Butts's "Conclusion: A Brief Evaluation of the Novels," on the other hand, proves rather disappointing: perfunctorily written, as if only reluctantly appended.
Butts is clearly in sympathy with Gardner's stated aims, intuitively able to take the author at his word, at least insofar as that word was made flesh in that [End Page 304] less than entirely reliable guide to Gardner's own art, On Moral Fiction (1978). Butts's emphasis on affirmation and aesthetic wholeness leads him away, however, from the evolutionary process of "making life art" to the positing of an ultimately static product, a consumable fiction of transcendent meanings, at the expense of that play of images, ideas, voices, and forms the analysis of which would, I believe, begin to establish Gardner's reputation as a decidedly contemporary writer in ways that much of the published criticism has failed to do. Read in the contextual glare of On Moral Fiction, Gardner's novels do indeed seem to invite the kind of reconciliation and resolution to which the majority of his most sympathetic critics have committed themselves, but to embrace "the buzzing blooming confusion," as Gardner, quoting William James, called it, ought to be the task not only of Gardner's characters but also of his critics: to embrace, that is, a less cloying and more ambiguous "aesthetic wholeness." Rather than speaking so confidently of "Gardner's actual intent" (or deciding that Taggert Hodge did in fact murder Clive Paxton, a matter which The Sunlight Dialogues leaves notably unclear and unresolved), Gardner's critics would do well to pay less attention to Gardner's theories and more to those of, say, Bakhtin, whose dialogism may well tell us more about the novels than has yet been said. Put another way, Gardner criticism remains too safely within the boundaries set by the writer himself when speaking in but one of his several voices.