Novelist's Themes Belied by His Own Life Style

The Washington Post

There is a quiet in John Rolfe Gardiner's work. Tell him that and he may take it as a compliment, which it is, but he also acts a little puzzled.

For the characters in his new novel, "In the Heart of the Whole World," get all the action they could want: The narrator's teen-age daughter runs a sex club in a mall and very nearly stars in a chain-saw snuff movie. The narrator himself, obsessed with the girl (who doesn't know she is his daughter), is mocked and vilified and finally driven from his job. People get beaten and shot at. An itinerant artist is hounded from the country.

The very landscape, its trees, farms and history, is literally erased for the sardonically named "Whole World" shopping center. Sex and violence on every page.

Yet the people living through all this, and especially the storyteller, Ray Sykes, one of those slightly screwball genius high school teachers, seem to be protected in some sweet way from the crazy demands of fate.

His career is basically ruined by the principal, a small person who sees only smallness in others, a man with no song in him who tells his math teachers to let pi equal 3 "because 3.1416 was too many numbers for many of the children to remember."

Slings and Arrows

But the principal himself is not immune to slings and arrows. He has a stroke and toward the end types Ray a letter: "My handwriting looks like a child's. I won't let anyone see it. Food and soup all over the table . . . "

For a while it is hard to figure out why this is so touching, for you come to dislike the principal as sharply as you dislike parts of yourself. But the more you think about it, the more you realize that all the characters here, good and bad, treat each other with this same intimacy and trust.

Look at Richard, the yokel who marries Sarah after Sykes has got her with child. Richard never knows he is not the real father, and naturally, when Sykes, the girl's teacher, the eccentric bachelor, spies on her, goes through her desk, steals her diary and hangs around her day and night, Richard is apoplectic. Threatens to sue. Does in fact help to besmirch Sykes as a pervert and get him fired.

But at the end, they are all still speaking to one another. They are victims of life together. They forgive each other, and Gardiner forgives them all.

Possibly it has something to do with living in a small town. The first story Gardiner published (in the New Yorker) is about a resident prowler in his one-store northern Virginia hamlet, and how the neighbors keep trying to catch him in the act but can't, and how they still have to live with him every day.

Fled the Urban Scene

You could suspect the writer was saying that country people are more intensely alive, more awake to the here and now, because they can't escape daily reality by fading into the crowd as city people can. You could suspect that was the real reason he left Washington in 1968--and the riots and the tear gas and the burglars infesting his Dupont Circle neighborhood--soon after covering that year's hysterical political conventions for Broadcasting magazine.

At the time, he said he simply wanted "a less turbulent place to work." Well, that, too.

Anyway, he rented a little house in Waterford, Va., where he free-lanced, then moved to Bluemont, where a carpenter friend apprenticed him, and finally to Unison, a wide place in the road five miles west of Middleburg.

His wife Joan already was living in the raffish $19,000 plaster-fronted house, part of it 200 years old. Their mortgage cost $115 a month, and he built a two-story addition with stone chimney, a pottery studio for her and a cottage for himself. Once a visitor singled out the chimney as a prime example of early American masonry, meaning (Gardiner later realized) somewhat primitive.

Every writer who sees that cottage tends to sigh. There is a work table, a broad window looking into the woods, a bookshelf, a chair and the proverbial manual Underwood, one of those black and gold classics that stands up as straight and righteous as a Model-T Ford.

Gardiner, youthfully lean and shaggy at 51, spends his mornings there, turning out a page or two of story on copy paper and then writing corrections all over it in his tiny, legible script. Later he puts the stuff into his word processor, a gift from his mother, sister and brothers. He loves his word processor, but not enough to compose on it. What he mostly loves is the printer, which is whisper-quiet.

"If I'm close to the end of a story I'll keep going," he said, "but the beginning is always slow: Will I ever do a story again? And so forth. When you get the voice of the narrator, things go better, you have more fun, more little acts of discovery, and you think maybe it's going to work. Then you go through the anguish . . . And then you like it again and you send it off to see if anybody else likes it."

After his second novel came out in 1977, he concentrated on short stories, mainly for the New Yorker. He published a collection of them and has another ready. He has been anthologized, fellowshipped, scripted by "American Playhouse" and given a reading in New York, along with the likes of Marguerite Yourcenar, Anne Tyler and Raymond Carver.

There's still the country-living thing. Gardiner's father, "in the shipping business in New York," moved to Washington in 1942 for the war effort, found a lovely house around Old Dominion Drive and Spring Hill Road. The spot would be just beyond the Beltway and two miles north of Tysons Corner, except that there was no Beltway then and Tysons Corner, now a massive shopping mall, was a gas station with a squeaking screen door at a muddy crossroads.

This was the landscape he mourns in his book, of course. Mourns, though there are no sobbing strings, no Thomas Wolfe howl, no Faulknerian snarl for the loss of the past. (Mention Faulkner to him, and he does not seem pleased. Gardiner's territory between D.C. and the Blue Ridge is no fabled Yoknapatawpha but a very findable place, as real and urgently believable as his people.)

Dispassionately, Ray Sykes talks of standing in the mall on the site of his childhood home, the yard where he played, the victory garden, the hedges, the woods where his brother would meet a girl.

"McLean was a crossroads then," Gardiner said. "I saw that countryside change totally. I read about the plan for a neo-Gothic Crystal Palace, with its religious overtones, and I said, What does that mean? That was the kernel of the book."

From McLean schools, he went on to Sidwell Friends, Amherst, the Army, the magazine job. The amazing thing is that he has never been a teacher except for one creative writing course. For he has captured alive on paper the piercing joys and anguish of a great natural teacher.

Oh yes: As a kid, this elegant stylist had to be tutored in English, just as his brother--the Brooklyn College math professor--had to be tutored in math.

And now Gardiner is back in the country, where he started. "Our secret is low overhead, plus a stroke of luck here and there."

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