From Gardner, short stories dimmed by abstractions; The Art of Living and Other Stories, by John Gardner. Woodcuts by Mary Azarian. New York: Alfred A. Knopf. $12.95.
If the author of such basically dissimilar books as "Grendel," October Light, " and that curmudgeonly manifesto "On Moral Fiction" is noted for any particular qualities, they are probably his distinctively energetic and impudent variety and vitality. Some of the variety, at least, surfaces in the 10 stories comprising this new collection, Gardner's first since "The King's Indian" (1974 ).
For example, there's the least typical story here, "The Joy of the Just," which portrays a moralist turned avenger, an elderly woman bent on destroying her (perfectly innocent) "offenders." The conception is promising, but the development is repetitious and dull -- finally, it's a pointless story, enlivened only by some combative Bible-Quoting.
Whenever Morality per sem doesn't rear its head, Art does. "Trumpeter," for another example, announces itself as a picturing of "the only kingdom in the world where art reigned supreme" -- but it relaxes into anthropomorphical whimsy (this is one of Gardner's "Tales of Queen Louisa," omitted, I suspect, from the triad of them he published in that earlier collection).
Several other stories ("Nimram," "Redemption," "Stillness") deal with the evocative or restorative powers of art (specifically, music). "The Music Lover" -- an acknowledged steal from Thomas Mann -- contrasts the ravaged emotions of an elderly "concert devotee" against the pomposities of a satanic composer, whose music becomes in performance an avant-garde exercise in atonality and discord. Here again we feel the "moral fiction" argument stirring: an advocate of "decency" in art opposes "one of those fashionable nay-sayers."
The contours of fable are traceable elsewhere. "Vlemk the Box-Painter" is an interminable allegory about a painter whose creations assume their own life -- thus complicating and compromising his. The idea that artistic creations enter, despite themselves and their creators, into "reality" also suffuses "The Library Horror."
The idea that Art is more than a match for Life also (almost) animates the title story (note the reversible nature of that title?), the silly tale of a revivifying collusion betweeen a restaurant cook who thinks he's an artist and a gang of smalltown layabouts who yearn to be feared as "motorcycle hoods." Gardner uses the standard medieval forms of knightly quest and formal debate, setting up a dialectic between the claims of social organization and individual freedom.but the elements never cohere: arbitrary whimsy and atrocious dialogue keep us at a distance from the world of the story.
I read on, rubbing my eyes, wondering if there would be any relief from this fun-and- games obsession with those enormous cloudy abstractions Art-and-Morality, Art-and-Life; this tepid schoolmarmish medievalism.
Well, there is relief, in the splendid story "come on Back." This is a loving portrait of a Welsh farming community in upsate New York, and an intimation of adulthood for the young narrator enthralled by his elders' penchant for singing and "magic." It isn't really a story (though the dying of a beloved uncle provides a narrative thread); rather, a refreshing immerson in period and local detail. Though Gardner is often a slapdash writer, he has here achieved some beautiful observations ("fish poked thoughtfully in and out among the shadows of underwater weeds") and images (Welsh choruses sing "in numerous parts, each as clearly defined as cold, individual currents in a wide, bright river"; a blacksmith shop was "a dark, lively place full of coal smell, iron smell, and horse smell. All day long it rang like a musical instrument . . .").
The art that created "Come On Back" doesn't need any fabulistic trimmings or joky justifications. I hope that the artist who created it will pass beyond the defending and examining Art, and keep on producing it.