On the bus back from the Northwoods Writers' Conference in Bemidji I opened a volume of short stories to one by John Gardner called “Redemption.” At the conference on Friday, Judson Mitcham talked extensively about Gardner, mentioning the accident that killed him in 1982. The accident involved him and his motorcycle going off a cliff. He also mentioned an event in Gardner's childhood in which Gardner accidentally killed his brother with a piece of farm machinery, which of course tormented him for the rest of his life. I'm not sure if I'd heard that story or read “Redemption” before but they both seemed vaguely familiar.
“Redemption,” begins with a boy, Jack Hawthorne, accidentally killing his brother David with a tractor towing a cultipacker. Their father, Dale Hawthorne, is destroyed by this, as one could imagine. He blames himself, as a father would. Then comes this passage:
“Or he would ride away on his huge, darkly thundering Harley-Davidson 80, trying to forget, morbidly dwelling on what he'd meant to put behind him—how David had once laughed, cake in his fists; how he'd once patched a chair with precocious skill—or Dale Hawthorne would think, for the hundredth time, about suicide, hunting in mixed fear and anger for some reason not to miss the next turn, fly off to the right of the next iron bridge onto the moonlit gray rocks and black water below...”
I was at Bread Loaf in 1982 (see Jan. 21, 2011 post), two weeks before Gardner died. As Judson Mitcham talked on Friday about his days with Gardner, I recalled a talk given back in '82 on Moral Fiction. Gardner strode into a packed house at Bread Loaf, the crowd hushed as he reached the podium and said: “If you're not writing politically, you're not writing shit.” With that he left the room. I recounted this story later to Judson, adding that I had a one-on-one with Gardner several days after his “speech” and asked him about it. Gardner asked me what everyone had been talking about all week. He said that he could've spent 45 minutes on the subject but it wouldn't have had nearly the impact as hundreds of people talking non-stop about it for days. Judson said that he was at Bread Loaf two years later and people were still talking about it. And here we were, thirty years after that, talking about it still.
Anyway, if you're at a writers' conference and have a John Gardner story, you're bound to get people's attention (see Feb.2, 2011 post).