Marilynne Robinson’s Gilead books are astounding works of compassionate literature. I love each of them, with Gilead and Lila standing just ahead of Home for me personally. Jack, which with its recent publication makes this series a quartet, is right up there with Gilead for me. It’s a beautifully complex look at love and meaningfulness in life, and whether such things can retrieve and heal a lost soul.
The titular character, Jack Boughton, was a principle character in 2004’s Gilead. In that contemporary classic, Jack returns to his home in Gilead, Iowa, and threatens to unwind the elderly, distrusting narrator, John Ames. Ames is a Protestant minister and must work through his feelings of contempt for this errant son of a valued friend, the fellow minister, Rev. Robert Boughton.
In Jack we go backwards in time, to before Jack returns to Gilead. He is a wanderer in St. Louis, looking for work that will cover his boarding, if he can find boarding. He’s rough on the outside — his clothing is ragged, his body is skinny, and his face and hands are evidence of prior skirmishes — and he hasn’t got much positive going on inside. As a young man he disappointed his family time and again with things like petty thievery. Uncomfortable in Gilead — and seeking to escape some other personal problems — Jack left and spent the next several years in and out of jail.
In Jack, we meet a man who feels worthless. He does not understand his propensity to harm others, though he hopes he’s doing it less and less:
There were times in his youth when his imaginations of destruction were so powerful that the deed itself seemed as bad as done. So he did it. It was as if the force of the idea were strong enough that his collaboration in it was trivial. These impulses — they were not temptations — had quieted over the years.
Not only does he remain on the outskirts of society because he doesn’t feel he belongs in society, but he also doesn’t want to be in a position to harm others anymore. He sees others like him, even if they are not and never will be friends:
He and the clerk were alike in that neither of them mattered at all. Absent either of them, no one would look at the universe and say, Very nice, only one thing missing.
But in the first pages of the novel, we see that Jack has met a young woman named Della. Our first gimpse of them does not suggest a blossoming relationship:
He was walking along almost beside her, two steps behind. She did not look back. She said, “I’m not talking to you.”
“I completely understand.”
“If you did completely understand, you wouldn’t be following me.”
He said, “When a fellow takes a girl out to dinner, he has to see her home.”
“No, he doesn’t have to. Not if she tells him to go away and leave her alone.”
“I can’t help the way I was brought up,” he said. But he crossed the street and walked along beside her, across the street. When they were a block away from where she lived, he came across the street again. He said, “I do want to apologize.”
“I don’t want to hear it. And don’t bother trying to explain.”
“Thank you. I mean I’d rather not try to explain. If that’s all right.”
“Nothing is all right. All right has no place in this conversation.” Still, her voice was soft.
Della and Jack were never meant to be together. Della is a schoolteacher who comes from a respectable family. Jack does not fit in there. But that’s not all. If you’ve read Gilead you know that Della is a black woman, and both blacks and whites in St. Louis find even the suggestion of their relationship dangerous. She doesn’t deserve the trouble Jack will bring her, many advise. Both Jack and Della agree, but they have come together regardless.
This is a fundamental issue in Jack, but it is not where the book shines through for me. Robinson shows us how this relationship develops over time, the attraction and the wariness, the bliss and the very real peril. There’s also all of the moments when Jack knows he is being selfish and presumptuous: “He had to get her out of here, back to the right kind of life, in which he would of course have no place at all.”
Jack even seeks help from a well-meaning black minister, but he hears the same thing:
The minister leaned back in his chair. “Mr. Boughton, I will be very frank with you. I think I understand what I’m asking you to give up. You strike me as an intensely lonely man, someone for whom life has not gone well. And suddenly a fine young woman has decided she is in love with you. Her life up to this point has been sheltered enough that she doesn’t really know the kinds of things that can happen when laws are violated. And what can you do for her? You can be loyal to her. That’s worse that useless in the circumstances, unless you decide the loyal thing would be to leave her alone.”
It’s a major struggle. Della is having it as well. She loves her family and knows that her relationship with a white man would likely be ruinous, and not because they’d disown her. They love her terrible: that’s part of the problem. They want her happiness, but honestly even we recognize how unsuitable Jack is. We have the benefit, though, of also seeing Jack’s internal struggle, his own fight for meaning, to be someone worth loving.
Love, in so many forms, and well-wishing are sources of constant tension in this book. But it’s also the book’s beautiful light. It’s what helps the characters transcend the boundaries society would place on them. This shows up in several of Jack’s relationships. His father, for example, loves him a great deal. We’ve seen this in Gilead and Home, where others suggested do better to just forsake his son. But he wouldn’t do it, and this became a source of peace and pain for Jack:
He heard his mother say once, “I guess you’re never going to give up on him.” His father seemed to consider, and then he said, “I’m just not sure there would be any point in it.”
It’s not that easy for his father, of course. He has had to continually reconcile his belief in justice and doctrine that suggested his son was lost with his strong belief in grace and mercy, as well as his own certainty that he loved his son.
The relationship between Jack and Della, we know, will not proceed easily. We worry about Jack’s impulses and wonder what Della is getting out of this. Jack wonders too:
So here I am, he thought. And here she was, Della, the woman he had recruited into his daydreams to make up for the paucity of meaning and event he sometimes found oppressive.
It’s because he wonders that we get a glimpse at what Della sees in him when she sees past all of the scruff and circumstance.
It’s a tremendous book in a tremendous series of books that continues to affect my life deeply.