Oct 20, 2016
John Gardner’s spirit continues to inhabit the small city of Batavia more than 30 years after his death. He is remembered, revered and memorialized in his hometown, where he still stands on the shortlist of most famous residents.
Every year, notable Batavians, including author Bill Kauffman, gather to invoke Gardner’s memory with the Batavia Reads Gardner event. They pack into the Pok-A-Dot restaurant, a Batavia staple and Gardner’s favorite eatery, to read from his novels, plays, poems and short stories and share in their love for the written word.
“People come in to listen to Gardner, and we kind of conjure his spirit once a year,” said Kauffman, who will help lead the 20th installment of Batavia Reads Gardner at 8 p.m. Saturday at Pok-A-Dot, 229 Ellicott St.
“It’s funny, if I were to list my 100 favorite novelists, he wouldn’t be on it,” Kauffman added. “I like him. I like his work, but he’s not a favorite of mine. But he’s ours. That’s why we do it.”
Gardner is best known for his novel, “Grendel,” a retelling of “Beowulf” from the monster’s perspective. But it is his two novels set in Batavia that most resonate with the hometown readers. “The Resurrection,” published in 1966, follows a philosophy professor who returns home to Batavia to die. “The Sunlight Dialogues,” published in 1972, tells the tale of police chief Fred Clumly’s battle with The Sunlight Man.
“It starts with (The Sunlight Man) getting arrested for painting ‘Love’ at the end of the Thruway exit on Oak Street,” Kauffman said. “I always thought it would be pretty cool to paint ‘Love’ there on the street as a ‘Welcome to Batavia’ marker.”
Charley Boyd, an English professor at Genesee Community College, spearheaded the Batavia Reads Gardner event, first at the Holland Land Office Museum before moving to the Pok-A-Dot.
“He gathered a bunch of us together because John Gardner was forgotten, really, to a large extent in his hometown,” Kauffman said. “And Gardner is one of the more significant American authors of the second half of the 20th Century. Even his work that is not set in Batavia still reads Batavia; it feels like Batavia. He should be remembered.”
Originally meant as just a one-off event, Batavia Reads Gardner has become an annual mainstay. It’s a communal taking of pride in Batavia and one of its favorite sons.
The Pok-A-Dot is, of course, the perfect venue for the event, not only because Gardner loved to eat there, but because it is iconic. Kauffman called it “unpretentious and real.” And the John Gardner memorial bench sits outside where people often pose for photos.
Gardner was only 49 when he died in a motorcycle accident in 1982. He left his fans to wonder what more he would have created had he lived. And who knows? Perhaps the Batavia Reads Gardner event would have started anyway, and he would have joined everyone at the Pok-A-Dot.
“Maybe he would be here,” Kauffman said, “sitting in the corner hungover.”