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Although scholars have paid some attention to the influences of Dante, Malory, Blake, and others upon the fiction of John Gardner, little has been done in terms of the overwhelming number of Biblical references in his work even though in his autobiographical "Cartoons" Gardner cited God (along with Dickens and Disney) as a favorite author from the "nonrealist" tradition (126). Since within the first ten pages of The Sunlight Dialogues there are references to Jacob and Leah, Jonah, King David and "the oldest judge in the world," it seems worthwhile to begin such a study with a consideration of the relationship between the Old Testament and this novel. Despite the references in the beginning of the novel to the era of patriarchs and kings, The Sunlight Dialogues seems to be most indebted to wisdom literature, more specially, to the Book of Job. Because Gardner recalls in "Cartoons" instances in which his father read from the Book of Job (125), there can be no doubt that Gardner was familiar with the work.
The central plot of The Sunlight Dialogues revolves around the dialogues between Batavia Chief of Police Fred Clumly and Taggert Hodge, alias the Sunlight Man, who upon his return to Batavia, New York, is arrested for suspicious behavior: writing "love" on the highway and burning his identification. The Sunlight Man escapes from prison but arranges meetings with Clumly to discuss lofty philosophical issues. Several sub-plots are developed, most of them related to incidences in the lives of members of the Hodge family, or the personal life of Fred Clumly and his wife, Esther. Meanwhile, the Sunlight Man becomes increasingly violent. Eventually he imprisons his sister-in-law and her son in their cellar, claims to have murdered his father-in-law, Clive Paxton, and sets part of the Hodge estate on fire. At the end of the novel, when he arrives at the police station in despair to turn himself in, he cannot resist one last joke and so moves the gun the officer on duty carelessly left on the desk. The police officer finds the gun in the drawer and kills the Sunlight Man in a moment that seems to hang somewhere between reasonable and accidental.
With this novel, Gardner hoped to write something as great in scope as Melville's Moby Dick (incidentally, also a work very much indebted to the Book of Job). The Book of Job could help serve Gardner's intent since, as Northrop Frye suggests, it is "the epitome of the narrative of the Bible" insofar as it contains the "entire circuit - creation and fall, plagues, law and wisdom, prophetic insight, a final vision of presence and the knowledge that in the midst of death we are in life" (193). Certainly Gardner would be attracted to the life affirmation theme in the Book of Job since he argues in his On Moral Fiction that the "noble end" to literature is, precisely, life affirmation. While considering such shared themes as life affirmation, the nature of suffering, and the nature of the objective reality, both works, not surprisingly, rely on similar narrative techniques.
For instance, both The Sunlight Dialogues and the Book of Job contain fantastical events to place them in the "non-realist tradition." A fairy-tale effect is evoked within the first few lines of each text. The effect is profound in Stephen Mitchell's translation of Job: "Once upon a time, in the land of Uz, there was a man named Job" (1:1). The prologue to The Sunlight Dialogues shares the long-ago-far-away setting. Here, "the oldest judge in the world" and Fred Clumly reminisce about the events of the novel many years after they occur. …