This time around, Robinson is working in a real city, St. Louis, after World War II. The story focuses closely on John Ames Boughton — Jack — the errant son of Rev. Boughton. A thief, an alcoholic and a confirmed cad, Jack has fled the forgiving arms of his family but still carries the burden of their hope. Leaving home and his father’s forbearance hasn’t helped him escape the vexation of being a pious man’s son. He’s been teetering on the edge of suicide, determined “to stay alive as long as decency required.” After a couple years in prison — ironically, for a crime he didn’t commit — Jack is now wandering the streets of St. Louis trying to avoid brawnier thieves than he.
This is the story of an impossible love affair — an illegal relationship in Missouri — between Jack and a Black schoolteacher named Della. “Their lives were parallel lines that would not meet,” Robinson writes, but her novel records their concerted efforts to bend the racist geometry of America.
Thematically, this marks a return to the beginnings of the Gilead quartet, which is laced with legends of the antislavery warrior John Brown. Now, here we are more than a century later in that city that once sat on the fault line between the Union and the Confederacy. St. Louis is free but still segregated, its thriving Black section circumscribed by White power.
By chance — or providence, considering this is Robinson’s godly realm — Jack first spots Della during a rainstorm. When she drops a stack of students’ papers, he rushes to help. Assuming from his dark suit that he’s a minister, Della invites him in for tea, and they discover a shared love of poetry. In the alchemy of her affection, Jack’s despair is transmuted into comedy, his self-absorption into passion. He’s so smitten with Della that he immediately begins thinking of what books he can steal for her. That’s love.
But it’s ferociously restrained — like this novel. Months pass before Jack spots the schoolteacher again. Having lingered too long in a city cemetery while writing a poem, Della finds herself locked in till dawn. Jack, who sometimes sleeps among the graves to save money, comes to her rescue, though he’s a little drunk. Their night together — which plays out over almost a quarter of the novel — is a chaste tryst of refined conversation and anguished reflection.
“I don’t even know you,” Della says. “This is the strangest situation.” It is. Winding through the headstones, “on the very porch of extinction,” they wait for dawn while considering the complications of divine foreknowledge, the Apocalypse and “Hamlet.”
Jack confesses: “I’m a simple man who was brought up by a complicated man. So I have mannerisms and so on. Vocabulary.” Indeed, Jack is a distinctly Robinsonian bum: genteel to the point of parody and well-versed in the conundrums of 16th-century theology. He may have lost his faith, but he retains the Calvinist habit of compulsively parsing his soul. He’s a reprobate with no confidence in grace, reduced to keeping his spirit afloat with a mixture of self-deprecating irony and the affectations of civility. In “Home” (2008), Jack’s humiliation humanized him, often brutally, but in these pages, he sometimes seems smothered under the weight of Robinson’s erudition. As Della tells him, “You don’t feel like part of the world anymore.”
It’s Della’s ability to see through Jack’s persona that saves him — and this novel — from pretentiousness. When he jokes, “I am the Prince of Darkness,” she snaps back, “No, you’re a talkative man with holes in his socks.” While he keeps cycling through fits of anxiety, depression and adoration, resolved to be harmless, Della risks her job and her freedom to be with him. “All my life I’ve been a perfect Christian lady,” she says. “I actually am full of rage. Wrath.”
I only wish we got to see more of that fire in this novel. Robinson remains so focused on Jack’s ruminations that whatever Della may be thinking by loving him back is exalted as an ontological fact beyond scrutiny. Sweet as their affection for each other is, the story’s asymmetrical insight into their motives makes Della feel flat. That’s particularly surprising since a peripheral character watching out for her interests is more fully drawn, more conflicted by the complicated rules of success in a racist society.
But “Jack” is wholly Jack’s story. And Robinson cradles his love for Della with the tenderness of a gracious creator. “This was his grandest larceny by far,” she writes, “this sly theft of happiness from the very clutches of prohibition.” Readers who remember Jack’s condition in “Home” will experience this reckless romance under a shadow of future gloom, but hoping against hope is an essential strategy for living a predestined life.
Ron Charles writes about books for The Washington Post and hosts TotallyHipVideoBookReview.com.
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By Marilynne Robinson
FSG. 309 pp. $27
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