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October 16, 2008 |

By John Williams | Books | October 16, 2008 |

Marilynne Robinson’s Gilead was a small miracle, a novel in the form of a letter from the Rev. John Ames, 76 and dying, to his 7-year-old son. In language as modest and carefully planed as Shaker furniture, Robinson explored the nourishment of religious life in a manner both spiritually generous and intellectually serious.

Home returns to Gilead, Iowa, in the mid-1950s; returns, in fact, to the very same characters. The book is less a sequel than a view of the same movie from a different camera angle. Toward the end of Gilead, Ames’ best friend, a fellow reverend named Robert Boughton, must deal with the return of his son, Jack, who left the town in shame two decades earlier after impregnating a young girl. In Home, the action shifts to the Boughton household.

With the rest of the family’s adult children away, Glory, 38 years old, is home to care for her dying father. To both Glory and the reverend’s great surprise, Jack gets in touch by mail to say he’ll be coming back. As weeks pass, it seems an empty promise, but he does show up one day, suddenly and unassumingly, on the back porch. The return of the prodigal son is the novel’s most obvious theme, but Jack’s relationships with his father and Glory also speak to the possibility of real forgiveness, the conditions of familial love, and racial tension in mid-century America (the reverend dismisses the sight of dogs and fire hoses on the evening news as the price of order, but the images have stronger meaning for Jack).

Reviewing Gilead, James Wood warned that the book’s rhythm took some getting used to. He wrote: “the diary form that reports on daily and habitual occurrences tends to be relatively static; it is difficult to whip the donkey of dailiness into big, bucking, dramatic scenes.” True, but those limitations also usefully constrain a reader’s expectations. What Robinson achieved in Gilead was the maximum of what the diary form allowed her — a sustained portrait of one person’s rich and ruminative interior. It may lack big drama, but it’s a stunning accomplishment on its scale.

By contrast, Home features a more traditional, externally observed tableau that never becomes truly three-dimensional or believable. The front flap of Home proclaims that “Jack is one of the great characters in recent literature,” and the untruth of that is the novel’s tragic flaw. Perhaps viewed from the inside, as we viewed John Ames in Gilead, Jack would be such a character. As it is, his thoroughly respectful, even boring behavior jars against what Robinson tells us about him time and time again without ever showing it.

In Home, we’re reminded of the earlier pregnancy scandal, and we also hear of Jack’s rebellious youth, and his adulthood of alcoholism and undependable employment. But his youthful insolence is presented, in retrospect, as little more than the serious side of shenanigans, perhaps damaging to the reputation of a local preacher but hardly the stuff of lives gone off the rails. And when he talks to Glory about a woman he left behind in St. Louis, he says, “We became friends almost without calculation or connivance on my part.” This is
the gentle, antique voice of Marilynne Robinson, not the voice of the rugged and troubled Jack, and the problem is a recurring one. We are told that Jack has always been “the black sheep, the ne’er-do-well” of the family, but these vague descriptions speak much worse of those judging Jack than they do of the mainly decent soul on the page. The strain of unfair, saintly expectations is a theme, but the novel loses steam because Jack so often induces sympathy without really seeming risky or dangerous.

It’s impossible to judge Home against any standard but the exceedingly high bar set by Gilead, so the novel’s disappointments were probably inevitable. Home is essentially flat in its progression, much like the midwest in which it’s set, but Robinson still ably defends her status as one of the most graceful writers we have. There is a simplicity to her prose that serves her concerns well — both the prose and the concerns may be out of style, but when you read Robinson you wonder why that should be the case. In a typical passage, the family arranges itself in the house:

One evening Jack came in from the late twilight while Glory was settling her father for the night. They heard him in the kitchen getting himself a glass of water. The air had cooled. Insects had massed against the window screens, minute and various, craving the light from the tilted bulb of her father’s bedside lamp, and the crickets were loud, and an evening wind was stirring the trees. It always calmed her to know Jack had come inside for the night. She knew he would be propped against the counter, drinking good, cold water in the dark, the feel and smell of soil still on his hands. But her father was restless. He had something in mind, an intention he meant to act upon even in violation of this sweet quiet. He said, “I want a word with him. If you wouldn’t mind, Glory.”

By carefully choosing these plain words and lovingly setting them down, Robinson imbues them with fresh power. What she does for nearly all of her sentences, though, she never quite manages to do for Jack, whose inner world, so vital to the novel’s purpose, remains a mystery.

John Williams lives in Brooklyn. He’s a freelance writer. He blogs at A Special Way of Being Afraid.

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