June 29, 1981 12:00 PM

by John Gardner

Of the several literary John Gardners, this is the one who wrote Grendel and October Light, and no matter how far or how often Gardner’s fiction drifts in and out of reality, it makes its own strange sense. This collection of 10 stories, only three previously published, ranges in verisimilitude from Nimram, about a slight, touching encounter on an airplane between a famous orchestra conductor and a troubled teenage girl, to The Library Horror, about a man who finds characters from books materializing in his library. One novella-length story, Vlemk the Box-Painter, is about a struggling artist in an unnamed kingdom. His scruffy friends include a scorned violinist, a rejected poet and an aspiring ax murderer who awaits only the exact occasion to create perfect mayhem; Vlemk himself fashions a talking portrait of a princess he adores, yet goes around wondering, “What is it I want?” This is, among other things, a satire on art and artists, romance and dilettantism. It also has a more or less happy ending, becoming, in another twist of the Gardner magic that fills this book, a wry fairy tale. (Knopf, $12.95)

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