GARDNER, JOHN [CHAMPLIN] (1933–1982). The son of a dairy
farmer, John Gardner had no important personal connection with the sea.
Indeed, his maritime novella, The King’s Indian (1972, in a volume of the
same name), a modern Ancient Mariner story about a Captain Dirge and
the whaler Jerusalem seeking the Vanishing Islands, projects a constant desire to return to land or perhaps even to convert the sea into land. Still, the
sea figures pervasively in some of Gardner’s works, from metaphors about
mental activity in The Wreckage of Agathon (1970), to the fictional police
chief Fred Clumly’s reveries about serving on the S.S. Carolina and the thief
Walter Boyle’s memories of unloading Great Lakes* freight in The Sunlight
Dialogues (1973).
The ocean figures most prominently in the narrative poem Jason and
Medeia (1973) and in the novel October Light (1977). As Gardner says in
his introduction, Jason is roughly based on Apollonios Rhodios’ Argonautica (1546) (with liberal sprinklings from the Odyssey). Gardner carefully
researched the construction, planking, binding, tarring, and rigging of the
Argo, the ship that Athena sponsors on Jason’s quest for the Golden Fleece.
As in tradition, the ship often speaks in Athena’s voice. Gardner also pays
great attention to coastal names, real and imagined, from Achaea in the Gulf
of Corinth, past Thrace, through the Propontis, the Bosporus, and the Bithynian Sea, to the estuary of Phasis (modern Rion) at the end of the Black
Sea in Colchis (modern Mingrelia in Georgian Russia).
October Light takes place in landlocked Bennington, Vermont, where an
old woman discovers a “dirty” paperback sea novel that her brother’s grandson has hidden in a pigsty. The narrative of the paperback, which occupies
about a third of the novel, chronicles the adventures of two competing
twentieth-century drug smugglers, the captains of the Indomitable and the
Militant, who traffic in marijuana between the Pacific coast of Mexico and
San Francisco. The tragicomic plot places a would-be suicide from the
Golden Gate Bridge as the skipper of the Indomitable. For transacting their
marijuana deal, the ships land at Lost Souls’ Rock, which is probably a
fictional locale; given details in the ship’s log, however, the landing may be
Isla Roca Partida in the Revillagigedo Islands. There a flying saucer may
rescue the skippers from a deadly earthquake.