by Robert WeibezahlDecember, 2004
A prodigal's return
Twenty-three years is a long time between novels, especially when the first was a much-lauded award winner that readers embraced with cult-like devotion. But that's how long Marilynne Robinson has kept us waiting for her new novel, Gilead. Like Housekeeping, which won the 1981 PEN/ Hemingway Award, Gilead is neither lengthy nor wordy, yet it grapples with big issues and tells stories spanning more than one lifetime. One suspects that Robinson has spent the last two decades distilling these stories to their very essence, honing her prose with a subtlety that begs close reading. But Gilead is no mere exercise in fine writing to be admired for its narrative precision; it builds slowly and steadily, its full emotional force almost sneaking up on the reader.
If Housekeeping is remembered as a story about a family of women, Gilead is most certainly the story of a family of men specifically clergymen. Written in the form of a long letter or journal, it is the last testament of Reverend John Ames, age 77, to a young son he knows he will not live to see reach manhood. Ames is the last in a line of preachers. His grandfather came west before the Civil War to fight in Kansas alongside John Brown, lost an eye while a chaplain in the war, and spent his final years in the small town of Gilead, Iowa, embarrassing the family with public eccentricities and petty thievery. His son, Ames' father, was a pacifist minister who lived at odds with his father's bloody abolitionist past.
The present Ames, the narrator, has spent his entire life in Gilead, a once-thriving community close to the Kansas border that served as a by-station on the underground railroad. Though he's had his requisite share of sadness and happiness, Ames has had a relatively undramatic life. No life is truly uneventful when scrutinized, though, and as Ames records his thoughts for his young son the inner drama unfolds.
Most disturbing for this pious man has been his uneasy relationship with Jack Boughton, the son of a lifelong friend. Jack was named for Ames, an honor bestowed when it seemed he would never have a child of his own. But rather than embrace this namesake as his own son, Ames has always distrusted Jack. Not surprising in a novel about the disquiet love between fathers and sons, Jack's is a classic prodigal son story. He has led a profligate life, returning now to Gilead because his father is dying. Ames wants to protect his young wife and child from Jack's wiles, torn between warning them about the younger man's past and his pastoral duty to forgive a seemingly unrepentant sinner.
It is Jack's revelation of an unexpected truth that constitutes the climax of the story, but for the most part this is not a novel where plot is at the fore. There are plenty of stories within it, to be sure, told with the earnestness of timeless parables. But at its core, the book is largely about character and faith, about relationships between sons and fathers, not least of all the paramount relationship between the human son and the divine father. Robinson clearly knows her theology, particularly the staunch Protestantism that was the bedrock of the American westward migration, but doesn't impose an authorial voice on the narrative. Rather, she admirably allows Ames, with all his self-perceived moral flaws and uncertainties, to speak for himself about his beliefs. Many writers might have centered this story on the more colorful, elder Ames, who wielded the battle-ax against slavery, or his son who took up the equally controversial cause of pacifism during wartime. But their dramas remain peripheral. By focusing on the last, seemingly least consequential Ames, Robinson limns the gentler, if no less righteous drama, of an inner life committed to faith and the grace of God. As he surveys his life of the cloth, Ames comes to recognize the "thousand thousand sreasons to live this life, every one of them sufficient." Doctrine is not belief, he suggests, but only one way of talking about belief. Surely this quietly sublime work of fiction is another.
Robert Weibezahl's first novel, The Wicked and the Dead, will be published early next year.