I have just read the latest novel by Marilynne Robinson, acclaimed novelist, intellectual and winner of important literary awards.
“Jack” (2020) tells the story of a tortured soul, Jack Boughton, first introduced in her Pulitzer Prize-winning novel “Gilead.” Readers of that book will remember the main character, the Rev. John Ames, and his minister friend Robert Boughton. Jack is the estranged son of the Rev. Boughton and the namesake of the Rev. Ames. The close relationship between the two families is revealed in three interlocking novels: “Gilead,” (2004), “Home” (2008) and “Lila” (2014). The latest novel, “Jack,” treats mainly the title character and Della, the woman he loves.
PORTRAIT OF JACK IN THE NOVELSJack has grown up in a religious atmosphere, steeped in knowledge of Scripture and Presbyterian doctrine. Though he has difficulty accepting the gospel message his father preaches, he is drawn to ministers and theological discussions. (The author was raised a Presbyterian and later became a Congregationalist. Thus, she has the background for the difficult questions Jack raises regarding predestination, grace and salvation.)
Despite his growing up in a large, loving family, Jack has always been an outsider and a source of worry and grief to his parents. As a child he was often missing from the family group, hiding out in the barn or in a tall tree, and sometimes did not turn up for church services. The family tried to include him in games and activities, but he wandered off.
In his youth Jack often lied and committed petty thefts, but his father’s reputation usually protected him. This pattern continued, and even worse behavior ensued, bringing distress to the family.
Jack leaves college and goes to St. Louis, where he lives hand-to-mouth, sporadically working, going on binges, and lodging in cheap hotels. He also spends time in libraries. His brother Teddy tries to find him and leaves money at his last known address. Jack has very little contact with family for 20 years. Filled with guilt and self-loathing, he desperately wants to return and reconcile with his father. (He knows his mother has died.)
In “Home” he finally seeks “a balm in Gilead” and lives for a while with his father and his sister Glory. This novel, where he bonds with his youngest sister as they care for their aging father, gives a fuller picture of the prodigal son, loved dearly by his parent but also mourned.
MORE ABOUT THE NOVEL ‘JACK’“Jack” tells the story of Jack and Della, the black woman he falls in love with and she with him. This is an unlikely relationship for several reasons. The most obvious is that it takes place in the 1950s, when courtship and marriage between blacks and whites was taboo.
Della, the daughter of a prominent minister in Memphis, is a high school teacher in St. Louis. When she and Jack meet by chance, he is smitten with her but tells himself to stay away. Della is attractive and younger than Jack; however, he has an innate charm and grace. Also, he shares her love of poetry. In a wonderful scene, Jack, wandering around a large cemetery, spies Della, who gets locked inside the gates. He watches over her in a respectful way, and during that long night, the relationship begins in earnest.
The rest of the book reveals the ups and downs the couple goes through — Jack’s self-doubts and the reactions of Della’s family. The author develops the characters and the story fully — sometimes methinks she doth go on too long. Nevertheless, I wanted to keep reading. Lest I spoil the experience for readers, I refrain from giving further details.
Casey N. Cep of the “New Republic” called Robinson “one of the great religious novelists,” and James Woods said in the “New York Times Book Review”: “Robinson’s words have a spiritual force that’s very rare in contemporary fiction.” However, I assure readers that her novels are more probing than preachy; they show the frailty of human beings and the redemptive power of love.
‘LILA’The novel “Lila,” mentioned above, tells the story of the titular character, who was abducted by a homeless woman and raised hand-to-mouth. The novel shows how Lila and the Rev. John Ames came to marry and have a child. The Rev. Boughton plays a part here, but I don’t remember Jack making an appearance.
CAREER AND HONORSRobinson is professor emerita at the Iowa Writers’ Workshop, where she taught for 25 years. Besides the Pulitzer, she has received the Orange Prize for “Home” and the National Book Critics Circle Award for “Lila.” Her debut novel “Housekeeping” (1980) won the Hemingway Foundation/Pen Award.
Besides her novels, she has published several collections of essays, including “Absence of Mind” (2010). In these essays she challenges certain post-modern thinkers who in her view are too dismissive of religion and of traditional ways of understanding the human psyche.
In 2012 President Obama awarded Robinson the National Humanities Medal “for her grace and intelligence in writing.”
Marian Westbrook is a retired English instructor from Wayne Community College and a member of the Goldsboro Writers’ Group.