I have put off reading this book for years. It’s not that it didn’t interest me. On the contrary, I’ve pulled it off the shelf many times. But I always put it back, knowing I would get to it someday. Well, after reading and loving Marilynne Robinson’s first novel Housekeeping, and now that her third novel Home was a finalist for the National Book Award and now the National Book Critics Circle Award, the time has arrived. It helped, by the way, that Gilead (2004; Pulitzer) is also one of newly inaugurated President Obama’s favorites.
If you’re a grown man when you read this – it is my intention for this letter that you will read it then – I’ll have been gone a long time. I’ll know most of what there is to know about being dead, but I’ll probably keep it to myself. That seems to be the way of things.
Those are the words of Robinson’s exquisite narrator, John Ames, to his almost seven-year-old (nameless) son, his only living offspring (more than half a life ago he had a wife who died giving birth to his daughter who also died). Thus begins one of the most complex and well-crafted narrative structures I’ve ever seen, a structure where the various segments interact with one another. Born in 1880, he’s lived his whole life in Gilead, Iowa, which looks “like whatever hoe becomes after it begins to weary a little, then weary a little more.” Ames is now dying of old age – he’s nearly 77 years old. As you can see, he’s come to his family very late in life and, feeling blessed, regrets all the same that he will never live to see a child of his grow old. So he’s taking the time to write this journal as a sort of letter across the decades for his son when he’s grown.
Ames is a Congregationalist minister, as were his father and grandfather before him. As he writes for his son, Ames uses the journal to teach but also to reflect and sort out his own life, at times frustrated by his own inability to express what he wants:
I have tried to keep the Gospel before me as a standard for my life and my preaching. And yet there I was trying to write a sermon, when all I really wanted to do was try to remember a young woman’s face.
Knowing he can’t have much longer, he begins the book preoccupied with death. But even while Ames expresses a subdued anxiety about his death, he wants to teach his son a few lessons that might be important to learn from a father were he able to live long enough to teach them. Of particular importance to Ames is teaching his son of the value of the individual. As he’s interacted with his flock through the decades, Ames has come to realize the vast depth in each being:
That’s the strangest thing about this life, about being in the ministry. People change the subject when they see you coming. And then sometimes those very same people come into your study and tell you the most remarkable things. There’s a lot under the surface of live, everyone knows that. A lot of malice and dread and guilt, and so much loneliness, where you wouldn’t really expect to find it, either.
. . . .
When people come to speak to me, whatever they say, I am struck by a kind of incandescences in them, the “I” whose predicate can be “love” or “fear” or “want,” and whose object can be “someone” or “nothing” and it won’t really matter, because the loveliness is just in that presence, shaped around “I” like a flame on a wick, emanating itself in grief and guilt and joy and whatever else.
While speaking to and of his young son, Ames finds it easy to express pure love for his son’s existence (“You see how it is godlike to love the being of someone. Your existence is a delight to us.”). He has no need to question his young son’s goodness. Though he tells his son he will love him absolutely, no matter what he does in his later life, Ames fully expects his son to turn out to be an upstanding individual.
However, as the book progresses we learn of Ames’s best friend, Old Boughton, a Presbyterian minister. They grew up together and now both are suffering the last years of their lives (“Jesus never had to be old,” says Boughton). Boughton’s family has grown old around him. His wife is dead, and his children have all grown up and have all moved away except for Glory, who has come home to watch after her dying father.
Every once in a while in the letter/journal, Ames brings up one of his and Boughton’s supreme disappointments: John Ames “Jack” Boughton, Boughton’s son and Ames’s godson. Jack was an awful child who, for all we know, grew into an awful adult. He’s a drunk, and he hasn’t been around for years. But about halfway through the narrative Jack returns home (incidentally, this is also the topic of Robinson’s new book Home).
Smoothly, Ames’s journal shifts from being a predominantly an epistle to his son to his own reflections on this failed “son.” At first Ames’s doesn’t want to tell too much because, after all, his young son does not need to know everything. However, the letter becomes for Ames a way of understanding his own self even as he attempts to convey that self to his child. Ames’s detests Jack. He can’t stand the fact that though he’s been such a disappointment, Jack remains Boughton’s favorite child, a son who brings so much pain but whom Boughton forgives again and again. Ames struggles to find a way out of his resentment, out of his jealousy, out of his basic hatred. Worse, Ames’s wife and son have taken to Jack and Ames doesn’t know how to warn them off.
The truth is, as I stood there in the pulpit, looking down on the three of you, you looked to me like a handsome young family, and my evil old heart rose within me, the old covetise I have mentioned elsewhere came over me, and I felt the way I used to feel when the beauty of other lives was a misery and and offense to me. And I felt as if I were looking back from the grave.
This novel is fantastically complex in the way Robinson layers one father/son relationship on top of another, all to explore the vast landscape of those relationships: the love, the disappointment from father and from son, the need to be close and the need to be separated. Further, it’s brilliant how well Robinson juxtaposes Ames’s preaching about how to have godly love by recognizing merely the miracle of someone’s existence with Ames’s own hatred of this one individual who still calls him Papa.
After reading Housekeeping and now Gilead, I place Robinson in the forefront of American authors. Her collection of novels may be sparse, but in them lies more material than in a lifetime of work from many of the most prolific authors. Her writing skill is matched by her insights into the human condition, both from a spiritual perspective and from a purely humanistic perspective. This is not a polemic. Robinson is not preaching here through the voice of her preacher. While the Biblical story of the Prodigal Son is an obvious subtext, belief in divinity of any sort is not necessary to enjoy what this book has to offer. It’s a brilliant character study, and John Ames and Jack Boughton are incredibly well drawn. Furthermore, the aesthetics of Robinson’s limpid prose - it’s a rare treat to have form and substance and the weight of a cultural past all packed together in diction.
I’ll leave you with one more thought from Ames (I couldn’t resist):
Every single one of us is a little civilization built on the ruins of any number of preceding civilizations, but with our own variant notions of what is beautiful and what is acceptable – which, I hasten to add, we generally do not satisfy and by which we struggle to live. We take fortuitous resemblances among us to be actual likeness, because those around us have also fallen heir to the same customs, trade in the same coin, acknowledge, more or less, the same notions of decency and sanity. But all that really just allows us to coexist with the inviolable, untraversable, and utterly vast spaces between us.