“Miracles leave no trace. He had decided, hearing his father preach on the subject, that they happened once as a sort of commentary on the blandness and inadequacy of the reality they break in on, and then vanish, leaving a world behind that refutes the very idea that such a thing could have happened.”
Jack is the protagonist of the fourth book in Marilynne Robinson’s Gilead series – and incidentally the character Robinson said she could never pin down to a whole novel of his own. Never say never because here he is challenging everyone’s preconceptions about his life – including his own – because he reckoned without the love he was about to experience.
I use the word series but then question it at the same time – I am not sure if it is one the author would have considered or wanted. All these books can be read individually, although they are connected by family stories and by underlying philosophical questions.
The first book Gilead is an epistolary novel narrated in the unique voice of Presbyterian Minister Reverend John Ames and set in a fictional Iowan town. The text of Gilead is framed as a letter from Ames to his young son, a child born to him late in life. Wise and kind, Ames’ letters are his legacy to the child – a legacy of grace in all senses of the word, of familial love and sometimes quiet humour.
“For a dying man I feel pretty good and that is a blessing. Of course, your mother knows about it. She said if I feel good maybe the Doctor is wrong. But at my age there is a limit to how wrong he can be.”
Gilead was followed by the second book Lila – the story of how Reverend Ames meets and marries a younger woman. Lila has lived a hard, itinerant life and has arrived in Gilead purely by chance, accepting a lift from a stranger from St. Louis. At the time she meets Ames, Lila has set up home in an abandoned shack.
The term vagrant carries a perjorative meaning because society has imbued it with such. It shows everywhere in our treatment of homeless people, of Romany folk, of anyone who isn’t apparently towing the line. This is a state of being that is examined in Robinson’s new novel as Jack too is a character who is often homeless and jobless, although as I read I felt the author was asking less what it means to be an outsider, so much as compassionately recognising the outsider in all of us.
In an interview posted on Goodreads in 2017 Marilynne Robinson says of Lila: “there is a way in which her destitution has made her purely soul… .”
Now Jack has his own story. If you asked him, Jack would no doubt tell you that he is the black sheep of the Boughton family, the itinerant one, the tormented one. Being the son of one preacher and named for another is as good way as any to develop problems with your own identity, your own faith.
“I don’t know how one boy could have caused so much disappointment without giving anyone any grounds for hope, ” says Reverend Ames of Jack … “the lost sheep, the lost coin.”
When we first meet Jack, it is the early 1950s. He is a bit of a drinker, a bit of a down and out, of no fixed abode, jobless mostly, he’s even done a spell in prison. He is a man on the brink of despair who carries round the address of his own tombstone in his pocket. He calls himself the Prince of Darkness.
“- a bum, a grifter. A draft dodger was what he was. Even that was a lie, no matter who had dampened his brown with it. Also his manners and the words he used and the immutable habits of his mind. Sweet Jesus, there was no bottom to it, nothing he could say about himself finally. He was acquainted with despair.”
But there is a way in which Jack too is purely soul. He quotes Milton and Whitman with ease, is a haunter of libraries and bookshops. Many characters in the book may judge him for all the things that have gone wrong in his life, but the reader does not. Jack punishes himself in ways even the most vengeful god probably wouldn’t manage – and he is kind to stray cats.
Now a man in his forties, Jack is drifting aimlessly around St. Louis when he meets Della the daughter of an important black family and herself the child of a preacher. The two fall in love. Given the time and the place this is illegal. For any suspicion of cohabitation, they risk not only condemnation from both sides of the divide, but prison.
This fraught but somehow beautiful relationship kicks off in the unlikely setting of a cemetery at midnight with a discussion about predestination. He believes in it being of Presbyterian stock. She doesn’t being Methodist.
“Well she said, this is all very interesting. But don’t quote Scripture ironically. It makes me very uneasy when you do that.”
“I am the Prince of Darkness.”
“No you’re a talkative man with holes in his socks.”
It is not in the nature of truly bad people to think themselves truly bad. Methinks Jack protests too much about his dubious nature. Far from being duplicitous or evil, he suffers it seemed to me through being overly honest. He loves Della but he cannot be with Della, it is unthinkable what would happen to him. It is more unthinkable what would happen to her, a teacher and daughter of a respected family.
And it doesn’t matter how many ministers Jack goes to for advice, he will never find one of any creed or colour to bless this particular union. Those whom God hath joined…let no man put asunder. But it’s hard to be married to someone when it is not legal for you to sit together on a bus.
“The cosmic disorder. The disorder of things. There were no books with these titles, so far as he could discover, and he had looked.”
Jack and Della’s story is a romantic story and can be read simply as a tale of love against the odds. But it is inevitably a complex story concerning as it does motives and choices which once made, cannot be unmade, dashed familial hopes, the burdening of the next generation. What is the emotional and societal cost of personal transformation? What, as Jack asks, is the difference between faith and presumption.
Prohibitions against interracial marriage may be a thing of the past. But history has a way of coming round again in some form or another and there are and have been – and will continue to be – many other times and other situations in which people are not free to be with whoever they choose, or to love whoever they love. Because there is culture, there is prescription there is prejudice, there is law which has arisen out of culture, prescription and prejudice.
Many critics will claim for this or that book that it contains an examination of what it means to be human – but perhaps Robinson comes closer than most in a genuine philosophical search for an answer.
My thanks to Farrar, Straus & Giroux and NetGalley for this review copy.