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October Light is one of John Gardner's masterworks. The penniless widow of a once-wealthy dentist, Sally Abbot now lives in the Vermont farmhouse of her older brother, 72-year-old James Page. Polar opposites in nearly every way, their clash of values turns a bitter corner when the exacting and resolute James takes a shotgun to his sister's color television set. After he locks Sally up in her room with the trashy "blockbuster" novel that has consumed her (and only apples to eat), the novel-within-the-novel becomes an echo chamber providing glimpses into the history of the family that spawned these bizarre, sad, and stubborn people. Gardner uses the turbulent siblings as a stepping-off point from which he expands upon the lives of their extended families, and the rural community that surrounds them. He also engages larger issues of how liberals and conservatives define themselves, and considers those moments when life transcends all their arguments.
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By Tad Davis on 07-05-16
Two for the price of one
A lovely but sometimes baffling book from John Gardner (the John Gardner who wrote "Grendel" and "The Sunlight Dialogues" - not the mystery writer). Gardner is nothing if not audacious: and here, audaciously, he gives us two books for the price of one.
The first book is an Iowa Writers' Conference-type novel: it's about a farmer in rural Vermont whose sister is living with him; both are widowed, both are cranky, both are sitting on a mare's nest of unconfronted, undigested family tragedies. Details of place and exposition of character are dense and sharply observed. The brilliance here - and there's always brilliance in a John Gardner book - is watching how a conflict that starts out as slightly comic turns increasingly serious and even dangerous.
For a good bit of the novel, the sister is holed up in her room in protest. She finds a trashy novel and begins reading it to pass the time. And Gardner being Gardner, he gives us most of that novel as well - minus the pages that have fallen out of the cheap paperback binding.
Nothing could be more different from the first novel. The trashy novel is a phantasmagoria of marijuana smuggling, piracy, kidnapping, attempted suicide, sex, immigration, and guns. And flying saucers. Did I mention the flying saucers? And a character who, in the midst of a kangaroo trial, launches into a rambling diatribe about philosophical systems that sounds a bit like one of the Sunlight Dialogues.
Both were entertaining, and they intercut and inform each other in surprising ways. The "outer" story is slow at times, but the action becomes increasingly unhinged: there are plenty of explosions, and the ending is deeply satisfying. (The ending of the trashy novel is somewhat less so; but it IS a trashy novel with missing pages, after all.)
Steve Coulter is a wonderful narrator who nails every single character regardless of which story they appear in. I'll definitely be looking for more books narrated by him in the future.
2 of 2 people found this review helpful
By Suzanne Coralynne Hunter on 12-10-17
Would you try another book from John Gardner and/or Steve Coulter?
Has October Light turned you off from other books in this genre?
No, I want to read more of the Mohawk Valley writers but I think Gardner is over rated.
Would you be willing to try another one of Steve Coulter’s performances?
What character would you cut from October Light?
I’d cut the hoaky subplot that his has going with one of the characters reading a book.
Any additional comments?
Gardner’s style is similar to Russo’s (whom I love) and the characters in this book were well developed but they were depressive. It was too sad without redemption.