Read story by John Gardner online.
John Gardner's story starts out really well, delivering on the promise of the title with a minimum of fuss, but ends in a strange place. Jack Hawthorne is 12 and he unintentionally kills his 7-year-old brother David in a horrific accident involving farm machinery. That's the first thing we learn, and from there it is no problem to make a need for redemption believable. Jack's father goes to pieces, drinking and carousing and disappearing from home for days and weeks at a time. His mother is more stoic but she is broken too. It's arguably worst of all for Jack. No one blames him—it was a foolish avoidable accident, but an accident—except himself. This is the basic thrust, and it's powerful, based on an incident in Gardner's own life. But the details at the edges are weird and distracting. His father is some kind of poet-farmer, appearing at functions to read and entertain. They are in the country, on a farm, but it feels distinctly urban, or at least suburban. Maybe exurban? Somehow it feels like Ben & Jerry's Vermont. The unfocused and confusing setting only becomes worse when it becomes evident how Jack will redeem himself—by learning to play the French horn from an Old World master. Each element on its own might be convincing, but in the totality they are in conflict with one another. Jack works hard on the farm and also goes to a good school, a modern urban public school. If there's a certain disconnect between how hard and seriously Jack and his father work on the farm, it's even more so when the Old World master and French horn come along. Again, it's convincing enough, in this section, about the wonders and beauties and so forth of music, but it is jarringly at odds with what has gone before. Step back and think about it, and I suppose maybe it makes sense that a poet-farmer would raise a son who finds redemption playing the French horn, but they both feel so outside the norm I don't even know where to start. Their relationship is murky enough as it is, distorted by the tragedy. After the accident Gardner starts to lose me right away and by the introduction of the Old World master I was about gone, though the language is captivating enough to keep it going. This story qualifies for that great bland insult of any fiction, "It's well written." It feels more like a lost opportunity to me.
American Short Story Masterpieces, ed. Raymond Carver and Tom Jenks