Published nearly 25 years after her acclaimed debut, “Housekeeping,” Marilynne Robinson’s “Gilead” (2004) is widely considered an iconic American novel. “Gilead” won both the Pulitzer Prize for Fiction and the National Book Critics Circle Award and was revered by President Obama, who bestowed the National Humanities Medal on its author.
With “Gilead”’s narrator, the Rev. John Ames, an older man approaching death and writing a combination of journal and memoir for the benefit of his young son, Robinson performed a remarkable alchemy of the ordinary into the miraculous through the alembic of a pristine style. Lines from that novel can be so limpid as to seem cleaved into facets of pure brilliance.
Robinson has since published several more novels featuring characters from “Gilead.” In the Bible, Gilead is a ‘hill of testimony’; for Robinson, it is a fictional town in Iowa, and all her Gilead novels have the quality of testimony: sincerity, vulnerability, a confessional urgency. “Lila” (2014) gave us the troubled backstory of Rev. Ames’s young wife. “Home” (2008) focused on the family of Ames’s best friend, the Rev. Robert Boughton, and was told mostly from Boughton’s daughter Glory’s point of view. In all three novels, John Ames Boughton, or Jack, the prodigal son of Robert Boughton and the godson of his namesake, lurks and loiters as a figure of menace, heartache, failure. Now Jack gets his own eponymous volume: “Jack.”
This is surprising given Robinson’s own prior resistance to writing from Jack’s perspective. She explained her disinclination in a Paris Review interview: “Jack is thinking all the time — thinking too much — but I would lose Jack if I tried to get too close to him as a narrator,” she said. “He’s alienated in a complicated way. Other people don’t find him comprehensible and he doesn’t find them comprehensible.”
Jack’s alienation is indeed manifold. The shrinkage from name to nickname, from “John Ames Boughton” to rakish “Jack,” epitomizes the general diminution: potential, privilege, and dignity have dwindled down to recklessness and fecklessness. Despite his intelligence and charm, Jack has never been able to live steadily, productively, or happily. He refers to himself as the Prince of Darkness, thinks of himself disparagingly as “a bum, a grifter … a draft dodger.” He’s served time in prison. He’s a heavy drinker with kleptomaniac tendencies and a woebegone temperament. He lives haunted by guilt about the death of a daughter he fathered out of wedlock many years earlier. He bounces around from one flophouse to the next, un- or under-employed.
And then he meets Della. Both children of prominent religious figures, both enamored of poetry and prone to philosophical musings, both plagued by a sense of alienation and otherness, Jack and Della are inexorably drawn to each other. But the obstacles to their love are formidable. Jack’s instability and destitution are nothing compared to the fact that she is black and he is white; in 1940s St Louis, their relationship is criminal.
“Jack” is suffused with the virtues that make Robinson one of our greatest thinkers on matters of spirituality, love, and family. Thoughtful, subtle, probing, it glows with wit and wisdom. But, against its siblings in the series, it casts a cloudier light, with fewer flashes to bring tears to the eyes or an exclamation to the lips. That is in part due to the fact that “Jack” relies much more heavily on dialogue, which hurries Robinson’s prose from its typical patient unfolding. But it’s mostly due to its titular character.
On the one hand, Robinson needn’t have feared that getting close to Jack would cause her to lose him or render him incomprehensible. An ethical effect of inhabiting Jack’s consciousness over 300-plus pages is that we may observe a man dismissed and denounced by conventional society demonstrating his talents, expressing his remorse, and proving the purity of his intentions. By granting us access to Jack’s thoughts, regrets, pangs, and longings, Robinson casts a warm glow of forgiveness and mercy over a man whom others would disparage or deride. There is something beautiful and worthy in her giving him his own novel, his own opportunity to win our sympathy, our admiration, our tender regard.
But Robinson was also right to be apprehensive about the approach. Jack’s head is a place of excoriation, self-loathing, and intermittent inebriation — abiding there is fascinating but ultimately taxing. To inhabit Jack’s “thinking all the time” is to be mired in rumination, perseveration, hyperactive reflexivity. Jack is self-repellent but also relentlessly self-recursive; the style mimics this, with unceasing repetition of words like “harm” and “damage,” and the same points are hammered home again and again. The cost of Robinson’s accurately capturing Jack’s obsessive and “corrosive thoughts,” in other words, is the reader’s exhaustion.
“Jack” suffers from its claustrophobic focus, and the reader can’t help but feel that a novel called “Jack and Della” (the title of the excerpt from “Jack” published in The New Yorker this summer) would have made for a better, more capacious and moving book. Though Della is a vivid presence and has some of the book’s most arresting lines, her motivation for loving Jack is never entirely clear. When Jack tells her early on: “It’s ridiculous that a preacher’s daughter, a high-school teacher, a young woman with excellent prospects in life, would be hanging around with a confirmed, inveterate bum,” we nod in agreement. And even as she leads us to decry the societal obstacles preventing their rightful union, Robinson doesn’t fully convince us that this is a love worth rooting for. Knowing Jack as we do, we may fear for Della as her family does. Only if we see them as figures in a strenuous Christian parable — she the embodiment of charity, patience, and mercy, he the struggling sinner yearning for love’s transfiguration — does their love feel right. But here for once the transmutation of the lead of life fails to kindle into the gold of Gilead.
By Marilynne Robinson
Farrar, Straus and Giroux, 320 pp., $27
Priscilla Gilman is a former professor of English literature at Yale University and Vassar College and the author of “The Anti-Romantic Child: A Memoir of Unexpected Joy.”