Commentary by Karen Bernardo
Readers familiar with John Gardner’s biography cannot help but be struck by the similarity between the story line of “Redemption” and the facts of the author’s own life. When Gardner was eleven, he was towing a cultipacker (a farm vehicle used for compressing soil prior to seeding), holding his little sister on his lap as his younger brother, Gilbert, hung onto the back of the tractor. Gilbert fell off and was crushed beneath the cultipacker’s ridged roller. Gardner was never able to forgive himself for an accident that was almost certainly unavoidable, and he sought a sense of redemption in vain. It is little surprise that he would seek to express his anguish through art. In the end, Gardner seems to say, art may be all the redemption we have—if we have any at all.
In “Redemption,” the main character is twelve-year-old Jack Hawthorne, and the facts of the story are very similar to the real events—with one very significant difference. In Gardner’s story, there is an awful moment when Jack could have stopped the machine before it crushed little David’s skull, and he doesn’t stop; he keeps right on going, pushing David’s body into the earth. Gardner infers that Jack knows that David is already as good as dead, and finishing the job is actually merciful, like shooting a wounded deer. But this does not in any way assuage Jack’s intense feelings of guilt over his brother’s death.
Jack’s family is devastated, as any family would be. His father wears his anguish on the outside; he engages in meaningless affairs and storms across the countryside on his motorcycle, not returning for extended periods of time. Jack’s mother internalizes her grief, covering for her husband’s erratic behavior and pretending to the children that nothing is wrong. She signs Jack’s little sister up for piano and Jack for French horn lessons, as if behaving normally makes things normal. When Jack’s father finally buries his ghosts and returns to the family for good, she tells Jack, “It’s all over. Your dad’s come home.” But of course it’s not over, because David is still dead and Jack has not found his own way back from hell.
As Jack develops a passion for the French horn and the music it produces, we are clearly intended to see his artistic life as the “other half” of the story: if the accident is Jack’s fall, then music is his redemption. Yet the solution is unconvincing. Is Gardner arguing that art overcomes death because art is itself deathless? Or is he arguing that if David had to die, then Jack has to become better than either of them would have been had the accident never occurred? If so, Jack’s got a long way to go; when he asks his music teacher, the Russian virtuoso Yegudkin, whether he will ever play as well as his mentor, Yegudkin essentially laughs in his face. Where, exactly, is Jack’s redemption?
One of the most eerie things about “Redemption”—the second story in Gardner’s collection The Art of Living—is the woodcut on the cover of the book. It is reminiscent of Jack Hawthorne’s father Dale barreling blindly into the night on his motorcycle; but it bears a disturbing resemblance to the author himself, who the following year would meet death on a motorcycle, barreling into a night of his own.
John Gardner’s “Redemption” can be found in his collection The Art of Living and Other Stories, which can be accessed from Amazon here.
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