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By Michael Dirda
Sunday, November 21, 2004; Page BW15


By Marilynne Robinson

Farrar Straus Giroux. 247 pp. $23

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Gilead is a land east of the Jordan traditionally viewed as the source of a healing salve: the balm of Gilead. But in the Old Testament this same region carries less pacific associations as well and is sometimes described as a place of war, bloodshed and iniquity. The word Gilead is also linked -- through a folk etymology -- with the idea of witnessing.

Marilynne Robinson draws on all of these associations in her new novel, which -- let's say this right now -- is so serenely beautiful, and written in a prose so gravely measured and thoughtful, that one feels touched with grace just to read it. Gilead possesses the quiet ineluctable perfection of Flaubert's "A Simple Heart" as well as the moral and emotional complexity of Robert Frost's deepest poetry. There's nothing flashy in these pages, and yet one regularly pauses to reread sentences, sometimes for their beauty, sometimes for their truth: "Adulthood is a wonderful thing, and brief. You must be sure to enjoy it while it lasts."

Robinson's narrator is that rarity in fiction -- a thoroughly good man. As the Rev. John Ames approaches his 77th birthday (and an impending death from heart disease), he decides to record something of his family's history and his own inner life. The result, he trusts, may be of value to his young son, now only 7, as well as a testament of his love for the boy and the boy's mother, the unexpected blessing of his old age. After Ames lost his first wife in childbirth, he never remarried but instead devoted himself utterly to his parishioners. But one day a young woman, a stranger, entered his church and the 67-year-old minister fell in love with her, staunchly saying nothing because of the disparity between their ages. Then one day . . . but let Rev. Ames tell the story, as he does in this long letter to his son:

"I came near alarming myself with the thought of the loneliness stretching ahead of me, and the new bitterness of it, and how I hated the secretiveness and the renunciation that honor and decency required of me and that common sense enforced on me. But when I looked up, your mother was watching me, smiling a little, and she touched my hand and she said, 'You'll be just fine.' . . .

"She began to come to the house when some of the other women did, to take the curtains away to wash, to defrost the icebox. And then she started coming by herself to tend the gardens. She made them very fine and prosperous. And one evening when I saw her there, out by the wonderful roses, I said, 'How can I repay you for all this?'

"And she said, 'You ought to marry me.' And I did."

Elsewhere he tells us that he "was so startled when she said that to me that for a minute I couldn't find any words to reply. So she walked away, and I had to follow her along the street. I still didn't have the courage to touch her sleeve, but I said, 'You're right, I will.' And she said, 'Then I'll see you tomorrow,' and kept walking. That was the most thrilling thing that ever happened to me in my life."

The marriage proves utterly happy: One thinks of Ruth and Boaz. For Ames "Love is holy because it is like grace -- the worthiness of its object is never really what matters."

As one would expect of a preacher, John Ames has always written with what he calls "the deepest hope and conviction. Sifting my thoughts and choosing my words. Trying to say what was true." His prose is rich with Biblical simplicity and power (note all those "ands"). As a man, he loves reading and study, but even more the sheer joy of existence. "This is an interesting planet," he says at one point, "it deserves all the attention you can give it." Ames doesn't miss much, though once he finds himself "trying to remember what birds did before there were telephone wires." Joyfully, repeatedly, this dying man celebrates the simple wonder of being alive:

"I feel sometimes as if I were a child who opens its eyes on the world once and sees amazing things it will never know any names for and then has to close its eyes again. I know this is all mere apparition compared to what awaits us, but it is only lovelier for that. There is a human beauty in it. And I can't believe that, when we have all been changed and put on incorruptibility, we will forget our fantastic condition of mortality and impermanence, the great bright dream of procreating and perishing that meant the whole world to us. In eternity this world will be Troy, I believe, and all that has passed here will be the epic of the universe, the ballad they sing in the streets. Because I don't imagine any reality putting this one in the shade entirely."

"To play catch of an evening, to smell the river, to hear the train pass" -- such is the quiet tenor of life in this small Iowa town. "It's just a cluster of houses strung along a few roads, and a little row of brick buildings with stores in them, and a grain elevator and a water tower with Gilead written on its side, and the post office and the schools and the playing fields and the old train station, which is pretty well gone to weeds now." If this sounds idyllic, Ames does mention darker memories -- a fire set at the Negro church, the plight of an ignorant unwed mother: "She and her family lived in an isolated house with a lot of mean dogs under the porch."

Still, an old man can't help but think of the past. More and more, Ames recalls the lives of his father and grandfather, both ministers of the Lord. Before the Civil War, Gilead had become a haven for John Brown and his supporters, it being located just across the border from bloody Kansas. Indeed, Ames's grandfather rode with Brown and once preached to his flock in a red-stained shirt with a pistol tucked in his belt. "It was the most natural thing in the world," notes the descendant of this visionary patriarch, "that my grandfather's grave would look like a place where someone had tried to smother a fire."

Fathers and sons, sons and fathers -- this never-easy relationship soon grows into the novel's major leitmotif, recalling the parallel theme of mothers and daughters in Robinson's revered Housekeeping, her only other novel. Inevitably, the crusading firebrand's son becomes a staunch pacifist, then suffers unforeseen sorrows over his own offspring. As Ames concludes, "We live in the ruins of the lives of other generations."

Much of Gilead reads like a spiritual diary, the journal of a country pastor. Nearly everyone seems to be unrealistically good and selfless, even those who disagree about how the Lord wishes us to carry out his commands in this world. But then one day the prodigal son of Ames's best friend returns to Gilead. Decades before, young John Boughton brought disgrace on himself and his family, then disappeared. Now in his early forties, he has come back to visit his dying father. But what was his crime? And what has he been up to all these intervening years?

The enigmatic Boughton starts visiting Ames and his family, going so far as to play catch with the little boy and to make Mrs. Ames laugh and grow fond of him. They are, after all, roughly the same age, and Ames gradually suspects some "kind of understanding between them." Yet even as he agonizes whether to reveal the evil of Boughton's past, the old minister finds himself preaching that, at least sometimes, we may entertain angels unawares.

The time span of Gilead is roughly a hundred years -- from the 1850s to 1956, when Ames sets down his story. Implicitly, it looks far into the future -- Ames imagines his little boy as an old man -- and in spirit back to Biblical times. Eventually one realizes that beyond a portrait of the human condition -- prey to isolation and loneliness, ever needful of faith and love -- Robinson has subtly introduced that great heartbreaking theme of American history, the often divisive, unfulfilled quest for social and racial justice.

But I've said enough about this immensely moving novel. It may not be quite as strange or lyrical as Housekeeping -- what could be? -- but it is an equal triumph of tone and imagination, another spiritual journey no serious reader will want to miss. Among recent novelists, Marilynne Robinson's only equal as an artist is the late Penelope Fitzgerald. And like the author of The Blue Flower, Robinson somehow manages to point up her moral wisdom and common sense with a dry, easily missed humor. As John Ames remarks, when thinking about the forgiveness of enemies, "It is worth living long enough to outlast whatever sense of grievance you may acquire. Another reason why you must be careful of your health." •

Michael Dirda's e-mail address is dirdam@washpost.com. His new collection of essays, "Bound to Please," will be out later this month. Each Wednesday at 2 p.m. he discusses books online at washingtonpost.com.

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