“Jack and Della”
by Marilynne Robinson
from the July 20, 2020 issue of The New Yorker
For the first time in my life (I think), I had a chance to read the fiction published in The New Yorker prior to its publication. “Jack and Della” is an excerpt from Marilynne Robinson’s forthcoming novel Jack, which I finished a week ago thanks to an early copy from FSG. The second I was able to get my hands on a copy I pounced, because I love the world and characters Robinson created in Gilead, Home, and Lila.
In the first three books, we learn a lot about Jack, the wayward son who comes back to Gilead, seemingly changed. Here we finally get a book — and this story — that focuses on Jack’s perspective prior to his return to Gilead.
This story begins by focusing on the relationship between Jack and his father, the Reverent John Boughton. Boughton loves Jack, though Jack causes him and the rest of the family a lot of pain. Jack always seemed to be out of step. Not only was he an atheist, he was a petty thief. Things got really hard when he got a young woman pregnant and then left. Through it all, Boughton tried to reach out to his son, even if so much of what he believed suggested his son was lost. At the same time, his attempts to reach out were sometimes the very thing that pushed Jack away. Here is how this story begins:
His father would say, “You are not good for your own sake. That probably isn’t even possible. You are good as a courtesy to everyone around you. Keeping a promise or breaking it, telling the truth or lying — these things matter to those around you. So there is good you can do and can always do again. You do not have to believe you are good in order to act well in any specific case. You never lose that option.”
He said this from the pulpit, but he was saying it to Jack, who, to distract him from the parsing of some recent mischief, had almost confided to his father that he had certain doubts about his soul. This near-confession was probably meant to stir his father to the kind of gentle exasperation that meant he’d be brooding about Jack for a week and preaching to him on Sunday — it was another boyish prank, really, even though what he had told his father was true enough.
“Jack and Della” takes place a few years after Jack left Gilead. He’s done a stint in prison, and on his release meets Della, an enchanting young woman who, when they first meet, actually mistakes him for a religious authority.
Jack and Della strike up a friendship, but one that is troubled from the beginning. Della is a black school teacher whose family is highly respected. Jack, beyond being a white man, is also clearly a lost man. Jack knows this, so while he dreams he might meet her again and even court her, he also realizes how harmful this would be:
If anything remained to him that might be called a good name, walking down a street with her would put an end to it. He felt the warm chill of impulse, actually frightened himself a little with the thought that he could do harm so easily, so innocently, really, except in the fact that he knew how grave and final the harm would be to her. A shudder of guilt passed through him, stirring other guilt, of course. There he was on a park bench in the morning sun, among the squawk and gabble and the church bells, to his inner eye naked as Adam to his own scrutiny. Stay away from her, fool. That’s simple enough.
For her part, though, Della seems to have connected him Jack in such a way that she disregards all of the strong reasons to avoid the man. When she finds him to apologize, Jack wonders of the apology, “Was it a pretext? Sweet Jesus, how he loved the thought.” The most natural thing in the world would be for the two of them to fall in love and make a life together. It seems that it should be that easy. And so they set up a dinner date.
That’s about where this story ends, only the dinner date doesn’t go how they both hope. This excerpt is taken from relatively early in the book, so there’s a lot more trouble and pain to come. But we know that from the three novels Robinson has already published. This is a wonderful opportunity to go back to the start of this relationship that fundamentally changes Jack — maybe not in all of the ways his father would hope, but in ways that show Jack is not entirely lost.
I will have more to say about all of this when I post my thoughts on Jack, which is due for release in late September.