The following review of FREDDY'S BOOK is the property of the author and may not be reproduced in whole or part with his express written permission, which means that it is copyright protected. It is one of the many worthwhile items that sometimes appear on George Gaudette's wonderful gardner-l listserv, which you should join if you have any interest in Gardner.
It's from PAPA. 6.1 [Spring 1980]:95-101.)--reviewed by Jeff Henderson:
FREDDY'S BOOK. By John Gardner. New York: Alfred A. Knopf, Inc., 1980. 246 pp. $10. [$10!]
With seers and kings, monsters and heroes, Vermonters and drugrunners, as well as sundry other mortals and immortals securely in his trophy case, it was perhaps inevitable that John Gardner would eventually tackle the toughest adversary of them all--the Old Devil. He does exactly that in his new novel, Freddy's Book, simultaneously a brilliant literary entertainment and a serious inquiry into the nature of evil. Once again Gardner adapts an archaic fictional device--the tale-within-a-tale, as in October Light but managed much differently here--to his purposes. The framing tale, which serves only to introduce the much longer framed tale and does not reappear at the end, relates the encounter of a successful academic "psycho-historian" with an aging professor of Scandinavian history and the professor's "monstrous" son, Freddy--an obese, unhealthy boy at least eight feet tall who has spent most of his life in seclusion from the threatening and rejecting outside world. The psycho-historian, Jack Winesap, meets Professor Agaard (Freddy's father) at the cocktail party following Winesap's lecture to a university audience. Winesap has just presented his paper on "The Psycho-Politics of the Late Welsh Fairy Tale: Fee, Fie, Foe--Revolution!"--presumably a psycho-historical exegesis of Jack and the Beanstalk. The diminutive, "doll-like" Agaard intrudes on Winesap's bantering conversation about monsters (Bigfoot, et al.), introduces himself, blurts out in grim earnest, "I have a son who's a monster," then becomes flustered and quickly withdraws, leaving Winesap intrigued and a bit troubled. With breakfast next morning Winesap receives a strange letter from Agaard inviting him to his home. For various reasons, including a tone of distress in the letter, Winesap accepts, goes, gets snowed in and must spend the night in Agaard's Gothic house. That evening Agaard introduces him to Freddy, a genetic (not glandular) giant, result of a random "pairing of genes carried down from the days when . . . giants walked the earth." Freddy is bright, evidently a genius. Locked away from the world by his own choice, he has read most of his father's library, including works by Winesap, of whom he is "a kind of fan," Agaard says. And Freddy writes. Agaard believes Freddy has written a book, but the boy has refused to show it to him. That's why Agaard invited Winesap; he hoped Freddy would show _him_ the book. Although Winesap encourages Freddy, the boy still refuses to reveal the book. Later Winesap half-surreptitiously presents Freddy with his paper on Jack and the Beanstalk, knowing the paper will undermine Agaard's tyranny over Freddy. In the dead of night Freddy stealthily visits Winesap's room and deposits his own manuscript on the floor. This, the framing tale, occupies 60 pages; it is such an intriguing story one hates to see it end. But end it does, never to reappear again--except transmogrified, as Freddy's book. The remainder of the book is Freddy's manuscript, titled _King Gustav and the Devil_, a psycho-historical (or "pseudo-historical," as Agaard insists) account of social and political turmoil and intrigue in sixteenth-century Sweden. The story concerns the Swedish rebellion against Danish rule and the establishment of Swedish independence. Principal characters are Gustav Vasa, who cecomes King Gustavus I; his kinsman and advisor Lars-Goren, Knight (the protagonist); Bishop Hans Brask, allegorical figure of nihilism and despair and brilliant foil to Lars-Goren; and the Devil, embodiment of evil whom King Gustav finally dispatches Lars-Goren and Brask to kill. beyond the fact that this is a splendid book to read--it gives the pleasure, exhilaration, enlargement of sympathy and soul we require of literature--several points need to be made about Freddy's Book_ First, the story is an examination of evil, represented in the doings of the Devil and the human characters under his influence. Evil is, evidently, war, slaughter, greed, treachery, and oppression. It thrives on confusion--is itself confused--and it is essentially stupid. The Devil is stupid, for all his power and ubiquity; he can't concentrate, loses his thread, forgets, can't control the complicated schemes he sets in motion. His method is to "keep everything in confusion. . . . Baffle and madden the enemy and hope for the best" (worst). This is the Devil's fatal flaw, his inability to concentrate, keep track. Ultimately it enables Lars-Goren to cut the Devil's throat. What unleashes evil--_is_ evil, according to Bishop Brask--is "lack of communication between people . . . the closing of the heart . . . a turning toward secrecy, self-interest." If that is evil, what is good? It is Lars-Goren's desire for justice, his understanding after he purges himself of the evil of having permitted his peasants to burn a witch; it is the sympathy and desire to communicate of the young priest whom Bishop Brask loved long ago; it is the creation of a better system of government, one that will endure and supplant--or at any rate outlast--the old follies and unreasoning oppressions. A point the early reviewers seem to have missed is that the sage of Swedish independence as told here represents the invention (or evolution) of democracy in the modern world. Sten Sture's revolt, quashed and avenged in the "Stockholm bloodbath" of 1520, makes possible the success of Gustav's revolution. Sture had proclaimed the principle that "what concerns all should have the approval of all," but when Gustav becomes king he apparently loses sight of that principle. Perhaps he never heard it. Although Gustav begins his reigh with high ideals and the best intentions, he is quickly enmeshed in the Devil's intrigues, plots, and counterplots, and he becomes cynical and compromised. In the end, though, at the precise moment the Devil is disposed of, Gustav has a change of heart. He sits in Stockholm laboring over an execution order for his enemies, "real and imagined." He has a sudden thought, a vision, rejects what he's doing as stupidity, tears up the order, and thinks, "Let the Riksdag decide. What concerns all should have the approval of all." The complex events both literal and symbolic in _Freddy's Book_ turn on two central ideas. One is the premise (which also underlies the plot in Gardner's epic, _Jason and Medeia_) that there are from time to time great and crucial moments in history--turning points which profoundly influence the shape of the future: "At the time of this story, the world was teetering on the rim of such a moment. Immense forces hung in almost perfect balance: the tap of a child's finger might swing things either way. It was for this reason that the Devil made such frequent appearances." (Interestingly, near the end of the story a child taps a magic rock on a drumhead in a Lapp magician's tent just as Lars-Goren and Brask are scaling the Devil's mountainous body, moving toward his throat.) The historic moment here is the birth of democracy, a big nail at least in the Devil's coffin. At one point Lars-Goren thinks of the old oppressions: "It was a strange thing that a king would have such a power--but it was a fact of life, clearly, and had been so for centuries, all over the world." The other premise on which the plot turns is the idea that the basic principle in human affairs, as in biology, is survival of the fittest. Winesap foreshadows it in the framing tale: "It's Nature's way, I like to think: the Devonian fish corrected little by little through the ages into the milkcow, the gazelle, the princess with golden tresses who refills my glass." Although there are repeated glintings of the idea in Freddy's tale, it is Bishop Brask who makes the wider application and states the principle most fully: What does it suggest, this stock-breeding? It suggests that, given enough time, we could transform the world . . . . Is it that that draws kings to the sport of breeding stock? Have they seen to the heart of the mystery? have they noticed that they're onto the fundamental secret of God? . . . But think: suppose it's the same with ideas, governments, even virtues? . . . Put it this way: We hear the expression "Might makes right." Suppose it's true--I mean _profoundly_ true. Suppose there is in fact no good in the world except _that which survives_. . . . Suppose it's the same with governments. Create a form of government more effective than all the others, in due time it will destroy or at any rate outlive all the others. Governments, ideas, even virtues. Here, I think, is where this book lives. Here is John Gardner as fictive moralist with his "rather hopeful view of things" (as Winesap says), with, indeed, his message of mundane salvation couched in a tale to hold children from play and old men from the chimney corner. It's an intriguing idea: "evil" gradually evolved out--over the centuries, millennia--because it's stupid, less fit. It is ironic and sad that Bishop Brask is unable to glimpse the ground for hope in his own insight, blinded as he is by his nihilism--perhaps the last major triumph of the Devil. A word is necessary on the textured subtlety of this novel. It is a miracle of rare device, as is virtually all that flows from Gardner's pen. It is full of adumbrations later realized, correspondences, echoes, tantalizing possibilities for explication. The complex relations between the framing tale and the framed alone were work for Archimedes. Examples might be cited endlessly, which I forbear to do. An admonition is in order, though: like _Agathon_, _Grendel_, _Jason and Medeia_, and _October Light_, this is no book to read just once. Gardner's work both requires and rewards a second reading, and to refuse it does a disservice both to the author and to the reader. Finally, one is tempted--irresistibly--to measure _Freddy's Book_ by Gardner's own standard, set forth in his treatise _On Moral Fiction_. A good book, he says, is one that "for its time, is wise, sane, and magical, one that clarifies life and tends to improve it"--a definition that seems to me entirely serviceable. No question. _Freddy's Book_ is good. --jeff henderson