Wait, Martin Gardner wrote a novel? That was my reaction too, when I first found an autographed copy of The Flight of Peter Fromm among my grandfather’s book collection. Gardner is famous for short stories and essays, for writing the “Mathematical Games” column in Scientific American for many years, and for editing and anthologizing hundreds of other works. In addition, he did write a novel, and what a novel it is.
Peter Fromm is born in small-town Oklahoma and, as a teenager, moves into the orbit of strict fundamentalist beliefs. Determined to lead the mother of all revival movements against liberalism, he enrolls in seminary at the University of Chicago. There, however, his dogma turns out not to be powerful enough. Rather than him changing the world, the world beings changing him.
The Flight of Peter Fromm is an intense character study, perhaps the most intense that I’ve read. No other novel plunges in such depth into the inside of the protagonist’s mind, looking at the way a human experiences the world, evaluates information, tackles challenges, and makes compromises. Most of all, the novel looks at how Peter changes over time, and how he copes with the process of change, how he sees his earlier life in retrospect, how he plans for the future.
There’s lots more in The Flight of Peter Fromm. Gardner’s knowledge of religious topics is encyclopedic. He hits on everything from academic theology conferences to political activism to speaking in tongues. He has a stunning array of minor characters for Peter to bounce off of. And, in a master stroke, he has the novel narrated by the villain, Homer Wilson, who is a left-wing professor, prig, and utterly dishonest and reprehensible character who sets out to achieve Peter’s destruction. But through it all, the focus on the main character holds strong and makes this little-known novel one of the best American works of the 20th century.