In the fall of 1972, when I was a graduate student in philosophy at Southern Illinois University and beginning to write what would become my first published work of fiction, I found myself falling into the orbit of a popular English professor, a medievalist named John Champlin Gardner. A few months before we met, Gardner had published a magical novel called Grendel, which I read and thoroughly enjoyed for its fabulist style, its learned re-imagining of the Beowulf story from the monster’s point of view, and its wickedly antic caricature of Sartrean existentialism, reminiscent of Voltaire’s Candide.

So in September, I signed up for a beginner’s course called “Professional Writing” that Gardner taught at his farmhouse on Boskydell Road, in Carbondale, but after one meeting I convinced him to let me skip this class—I’d already written six unpublished novels, one of which would evolve 11 years later into Middle Passage—and go over my manuscripts with him every other week or so in his office. To become more fully acquainted with Gardner’s work, I bought from the campus bookstore The Forms of Fiction (1962); Papers on the Art and Age of Geoffrey Chaucer (1967), which he edited with Nicholas Joost; The Alliterative Morte Arthure, The Owl and the Nightingale, and Five Other Middle English Poems (1971); his first novel, The Resurrection (1966); and his second, The Wreckage of Agathon (1970).

When I met him 34 years ago, Gardner was at that delicate place known only too well by innovative literary artists who have a couple of highly praised novels under their belts but no best seller. Grendel had won respect in critical circles and was becoming an underground classic, and at 39, Gardner was writing harder than any person I’d known, and he fiercely believed in himself. That I found inspirational. In the afterword he wrote for a 1982 collection of critical articles on his work, edited by Robert A. Morace and Kathryn VanSpanckeren, Gardner declared,

True artists are possessed . . . they are messianic egomaniacs. They believe that what they do is unspeakably important: it is only that conviction that makes the writer himself important. . . . So Beethoven does draft after draft of his works, scrutinizing, altering, improving them long after anyone commonly sane would have stopped, delighted. . . . Only the absolute stubborn conviction that with patience enough he can find his way through or around any obstacle—only the certainty solid as his life that he can sooner or later discover the right technique—can get the true artist through the endless hours of fiddling, reconceiving, throwing out in disgust. If he does his work well, the ego that made it possible does not show in the work . . . He builds whatever world he is able to build, then evaporates into thin air, leaving what he’s built to get by on its own . . .

I remember visiting Gardner’s farmhouse in early December. During a break in our conversation, he pointed to a fat book, illustrated by his friend John Napper, which I believe was on the mantel, and proudly said, “Look at this!” I looked. I weighed the “loose baggy monster,” as he would later call this book, in my hands. I was impressed, yes, but I didn’t have a clue that this magisterial, triple-decker, architectonic novel would finally establish him, as one reviewer put it, as “that rare creature, a philosophical novelist.” The Sunlight Dialogues would stay on the New York Times best-seller list for 15 weeks (it would be the first of three best sellers in his career), and send, like a levin across the landscape of serious contemporary literature, a little-known, exquisitely educated scholar-artist on a remarkable ten-year creative and critical journey that would leave the indelible imprint of his artistic vision and bluff, combustible personality on the practice of fiction.

Written between 1966 and 1968, The Sunlight Dialogues contains more than 80 characters, eight parallel and intersecting story lines, 24 chapters (as an epic should), and weighs in at a hefty 690 pages. Set in 1966 in Batavia, New York, where the author was born and raised, it is the tale of a town’s disintegration from supposed perfection (the mythic American dream); a prominent family’s tragic descent into betrayal, death, and madness; and, holding its many narrative threads together, an aging policeman’s pursuit of a fire-scarred magician (the mark of Cain carried also by Grendel) who returns to Batavia—a place of real and false oracles and omens—bringing death as he preaches anarchy and radical freedom. Steeped in the fever-swamp conflicts of the late 1960s, when the civil-rights movement soured into violent black militancy, hippies transformed into yippies and Weathermen, and the federal government was preparing for the real possibility of civil war, Gardner’s fourth novel is for many critics, such as Gregory Morris, his “most expansive, most sophisticated, and most skilled intellectual declaration.”

Like many of his stories, The Sunlight Dialogues offers a dazzling and parodic postmodern example of what Gardner called “genre-crossing,” a nuanced merging of epic, medieval romance, Gothic tale, detective story, and philosophical treatise. In an interview with Joe David Bellamy and Pat Ensworth, he explained, “In The Sunlight Dialogues I wanted to tell a story which had the feel of total fabulation, total mystery—magicians—strange things and impossible tricks—so that everybody would have the sudden feeling at some point in the novel that he’s caught inside a novel. . . . I wanted to make people in the novel just as much like Batavians as possible and yet create the feeling that the whole novel is taking place in Oz.” Just as important is Gardner’s cultural explanation:

Maybe it’s just my imagination, but it seems to me we are a play out of the seventeenth century. Seventeenth-century civilization is us. The Middle Ages was the end of a different civilization. Someplace in the sixteenth century the Middle Ages stopped. In the fifteenth and sixteenth centuries all the genres break down. It becomes impossible to write a straight romance, or a straight anything. And everybody who is anybody starts form-jumping. Chaucer, for instance, starts putting together the epic poem. That’s Troilus and Criseyde—it’s a whole crazy different kind of thing. Well, and Malory comes out with Morte d’Arthur, which is a freaky new kind of form, a breakdown of all kinds of other forms. The mystery play arises. The literary genres of the Middle Ages didn’t work anymore because the metaphysic and social ethic that supported them was no longer believed.

Impermanence, entropy, death, and the inevitable collapse of civilizations as well as the universe—and what all that augurs for art and all our moral beliefs—was much on Gardner’s mind in the 1970s, as it had earlier been for Oswald Spengler in The Decline of the West, Arnold J. Toynbee in A Study of History, Sigmund Freud in Civilization and its Discontents and, in our brave new century, Morris Berman in The Twilight of American Culture and Dark Ages America. When I interviewed him in 1973 for The Southern Illinoisan, he said, “I think a certain kind of America is doomed, though something greater may be coming. The novelist and only the novelist thrives on breakdown, because that’s the moment when he can analyze the beauty of the values that are falling and rising. . . . When the old England at the end of the nineteenth century fell, along came Dickens; when Russia fell apart, along came Tolstoy.” (He did not cite those two authors casually; Gardner kept a bust of Dickens in his study and, like Tolstoy, taught himself Greek in later life to provide translations of Homer’s works for his students at SUNY-Binghamton.)

When The Sunlight Dialogues opens, 64-year-old Police Chief Fred Clumly, the protector of his town, is troubled by the rapidly growing cracks he sees in civilization—the Vietnam War, the Watts riots, hippies in California, neo-Nazis, murderers like Richard Speck—and the hollow life that he shares with his blind wife, Esther. Clumly’s physical characteristics are cartoonish: a disease he had during his days in the Navy has left his body “white and completely hairless.” His other distinguishing features are a “large nose, which was like a mole’s, and his teeth, which were strikingly white and without a flaw.” In other words, Chief Clumly—the most ordinary of men—lives in darkness, like a subterranean creature or a denizen of Plato’s cave.

Clumly is plunged into a crisis when his officers arrest a stranger, the Sunlight Man, for painting the word “LOVE” on a Batavia street, only to see him magically escape custody. After his jail break, he frees an Indian boy named Nick Slater and leaves behind a man who leads a double life as a burglar and a businessman-poet, Walter Benson (a.k.a. Walter Boyle). This escape leaves one of Clumly’s officers, Mickey Salvador, dead. Suddenly, there are extraordinarily high stakes in the police chief’s life of silent despair, and he somehow must spiritually emerge into the light.

Yet like his wife and so many characters in the novel, Clumly presents multiple profiles of meaning. He represents King Arthur and also Dante; he is an upholder of Christian love and Jewish law. His officers are knights; the Sunlight Man represents, among other things, Merlin. As the critics John M. Howell and Leonard Butts point out, blind Esther can be understood, variously, as Dante’s Beatrice, Homer’s Penelope, the Blind Maiden of cyclical romance who saves the knight, and Esther, savior of the Hebrews in the Old Testament.

Just as Gardner’s characterization of Clumly allows The Sunlight Dialogues to serve as a doorway into a multi-leveled exploration of medieval legend (at the time of its composition, Gardner was writing the Cliffs Notes for Thomas Malory’s Le Morte D’Arthur) and the history of the epic, so too his portrait of the Sunlight Man is a novelist’s carefully designed trapdoor (or Alice’s rabbit hole) that drops readers into a wonderland of Babylonian culture, a Faulknerian chronicle of the Hodge family’s dissolution, and Gardner’s ongoing dismantling of the errors he believed existed in Sartrean existentialism. Every good conte philosophique (or thriller) needs a larger-than-life “magnet character,” someone who, like a black hole or collapsing star, attracts everything in the vicinity. In Grendel, that character is arguably Gardner’s gold-hoarding dragon. In Moby Dick, it is Ahab. Here it is Taggert Hodge, the trickster, the Sunlight Man, who lives outside the strictures of civilization but who once was one of Batavia’s favored sons. He is the youngest and brightest offspring of U.S. Congressman Arthur S. Hodge, a paterfamilias of reason, probity and restraint, the man who raised the idyllic Stony Hill Farm, sired promising children, then lapsed into senility, leaving his offspring to drift into inaction, doubt, cynicism, self-loathing, and suicide.

Due to the tragic circumstances of his life, the Sunlight Man has descended deeper into grief, crime, and insanity than his troubled siblings. Among these unlucky events is his marriage to Kathleen, the daughter of Clive Paxton, whose ruthless business practices and dominance over Batavia will go unchallenged after the death of Congressman Hodge. Paxton opposed their marriage from the start and has it annulled after Kathleen goes mad and sets fire to Taggert’s law office, and then their home. Believing that his wife and children survived the fire that disfigured him and are with his father-in-law, the Sunlight Man returns to Batavia to reclaim them. (His children are dead, he later realizes, and so he kills Paxton, or so it seems.) Taunting Clumly, he draws the police chief into four wide-ranging philosophical “dialogues” (actually, the Sunlight Man has a monologue, and Clumly during their first session falls asleep) set in Batavia’s First Presbyterian Church; a tent covered with Babylonian symbols for the 12 astrological houses; a burial crypt; and finally at Stony Hill Farm, where the gothic tale of the Hodge family began. Like the American dream, this once Edenic paradise is in decline, “a place of high weeds, the September air full of insects.” As is the case with any good shape-shifter, Taggert appears sometimes like Christ, whose miracles were condemned as magic, sometimes like Nietzsche’s antichrist, but always he is Clumly’s dangerous, elusive guide into the more curious corners of a word he speaks to the police chief during one of their earliest conversations, a word that rattles around in the chief’s head like something he knows he should remember—“metaphysics.”

To be honest, when I first read The Sunlight Dialogues in 1973, exactly what Gardner was trying to say about reality in the dialogues escaped me, and seemed far less systematic and rigorous than the philosophers he admired—for example, Alfred North Whitehead and R.G. Collingwood. But with the help of his many fine critics—among them David Cowart, Morris, Howell, and Butts—the basic ontological underpinnings of the dialogues become discernible. For his material on the Babylonians, Gardner drew heavily on A. Leo Oppenheim’s Ancient Mesopotamia: A Portrait of a Dead Civilization (1964), mining it for both literal and ludic chapter titles based on photos of cuneiform tablets in Oppenheim’s book. The dialogues set up a distinction between acting through intuition in accordance with an impersonal universe of random accidents and acting in terms of arbitrary human laws and custom, rules imposed on human experience in a cosmos that is inherently mysterious, noetic, and indifferent to human longings and aspirations. Between the vast cosmic order and the limited, temporal one. Between the Babylonian belief in the holiness and separateness of body and spirit, for which they sought no connection and from which they experienced no guilt, that “Jewish product,” and the Judeo-Christian emphasis on codifying the spiritual realm into rules and laws. Two key concepts in their world view were simtu, “personal fate,” and istaru, the life of the universe, “the blueprint already completed for all Time and Space.”

According to the Sunlight Man, wisdom for the Babylonians lies in always maintaining one’s freedom to act in harmony with istaru through the refined Assyrian art of divination—“man’s attempt to find out what the universe is doing”—or reading signs intuitively. “After divination,” Taggert says, “one acts with the gods. You discover which way things are flowing, and you swim in the same direction. You allow yourself to be possessed. . . . The mind grows larger and irrational, one suddenly knows things impossible to know.”

By contrast, Clumly as a cop is not focused on listening to and acting in allegiance with istaru, but instead is narrowly attached to simtu, capturing individuals, and thereby maintaining law and order. But obedience to law does not always lead to justice. “I love justice,” says Taggert. “You love law. I’m Babylonian, and you, you’re one of the Jews.”

True enough, the police chief has lived by man’s ancient and futile attempt to reduce the boundless istaru to laws, never seeing that uncrossable breach between soul and body, or the impossibility of any of our systems to adequately reflect the universe. Slowly, as this pas de deux unfolds, it dawns on Clumly that almost everything he was taught culturally to believe, his Norman Rockwell, Middle American vision of reality, is a lie. (At the novel’s conclusion, he delivers a moving, confused, and beautiful speech to the Dairyman’s League at the Grange Hall, stammering, “We may be wrong about the whole thing. . . . The whole kaboodle. If we could look at ourselves from the eyes of history—.”) But Clumly is a quick study. Being a policeman, he has trusted reason and the scientific method but also feeling, intuition and whim. That means he is not really unacquainted with the methods for deciding ethical action employed by Assyrian kings. Added to which, Clumly (like Gardner) believes in Whitehead’s notion of the “interconnectedness” of all life, a condition that necessarily leads to empathy, compassion, and love. This is an ethical conclusion, I should point out, shared by Martin Luther King Jr. (Taggert would have seen him as one of the Jews) when he said, “All life is interrelated. We are all caught in an inescapable network of mutuality, tied into a single garment of destiny. Whatever affects one directly, affects all indirectly,” and persistently urged Americans in the ’60s to strive for the realization of a “beloved community.”

The police chief discovers he’s able to make something of a synthesis between his position and that of the Sunlight Man, trusting not the inflexible laws he has served (or abusing them as Will Hodge Jr. does), but instead selfless love as the only consolation in the face of death and meaninglessness. Like King, Clumly understands now that unjust laws must be broken, and that in an interconnected universe of cause and effect, we must embrace and take responsibility for each other, as he does for the Sunlight Man.

Much of the non-Western meditation in the dialogues is beyond the ken of Clumly, but a few notions nudge him toward the light and toward a recognition of the pure love Esther shows him. “Mrs. Clumly is the Beatrice of The Sunlight Dialogues,” Gardner once told an interviewer. “She guides everybody because she loves. This is the kind of imagination which holds the world together. . . . The ability to be patient, to be tolerant, to try to understand and empathize, is the highest kind of imagination.” But the dialogues fail to help the Sunlight Man himself. Gardner once said of him, “He’s a wild, romantic poet with no hope of God.” In the end, Taggert’s Babylonian lectures prove to be a failed effort to disguise his belief in nothing at all, his nihilism; his openness to a galaxy of philosophical systems undermined by his inability to conjure a unified vision from them, thus leading to his fall into existentialism, that great intellectual blunder in Gardner’s own governing metaphysical system.

Away from its central detective story, The Sunlight Dialogues offers a wealth of memorable minor characters and relationships that parallel the Clumly–Sunlight Man opposition. There is Millie Jewel Hodge, a woman trapped by her sex and superior wit, who tricked Will Hodge Sr. into marriage after failing to snare his brother, Ben—a self-proclaimed “bitch” twisted by her desire for the Hodge family name and social position. We have Walter Benson hiding his comic secret life as a thief from his wife Marguerite in Buffalo, New York, frequently forgetting his real name, and discovering Marguerite’s affair with their roomer Ollie Nuper, an anti-capitalist political activist. During a dinner argument he reveals his racism and profound contempt for the black people he hypocritically champions at a rally just before his murder by fascist thugs. And there is—well, you get the idea. It sometimes feels as if Gardner opened the Batavia phone book and decided to breathe life into everyone in it.

Yet how strange it is that the dawn of the 21st century resembles even more than the early 1970s the age of Petronius, the author of the Satyricon at the end of the Roman empire. If enduring literary art is characterized by its abundant generosity, by an imaginative story that never stops giving on all levels, that contains all of Western literature’s important themes and tropes, then The Sunlight Dialogues is such a work. No characters are set up as straw men (or foils). All are treated sympathetically and fully, regardless of their race, class, or sex, and this is precisely what Gardner meant by the process of a moral fiction. Like a shaman, the author inhabits the lives of all his (or her) characters in hopes of understanding them. He does not preach. He brings no pre-established agendas. He does not take sides. He explores the timeless problems of the human experience as a scientist would a hypothesis through the equivalent technical means at a writer’s disposal—primarily, the dramatic possibilities inherent in character and event. In the grandly envisioned fictional universe of The Sunlight Dialogues, with its rogues’ gallery of characters who equally mix in themselves good and evil as they confront life’s ambiguity, in this book he left to “get by on its own” after his fatal motorcycle accident in 1982, there are ultimately no winners or losers, only a magnificent funhouse mirror held up for readers to recognize, as Saul Bellow once put it, “the secrets of our own hearts.”

And only you, the reader, win.