Jack: A Thoughtful Chapter in Marilynne Robinson's Gilead Series


Jack  (2020)

By Marilynne Robinson

Farrar, Straus & Giroux, 310 pages.





“There is a balm in Gilead.” So goes the opening line of an old hymn. Among Jack Ames Boughton’s problems is that he long ago left Gilead–the one in Iowa, where his father is the town’s Presbyterian minister. Jack is part of novelist Marilynne Robinson’s Gilead series. The first, Gilead was about the dying Rev. John Ames and his old friend Rev. Robert Boughton. The second, Home, chronicles the Boughton family, while the third, Lila, was about Rev. Ames’s second wife–he was a widower when they married–and his (misplaced) distrust of Jack Boughton, whom he thought had designs on Lila. Jack gives us insight into why Jack left Gilead and is estranged from his family, though his brother Teddy tries to aid him financially and lure him back home.


Alas, the road has not been kind. Jack is set in the late 1940s, and I need not tell you that the preceding decade was a bitter one. Jack is a drifter, a “bum” as he calls himself. His is a toxic mix of economic hardship and unshakeable servings of the doctrine of predestination made manifest as stasis and self-loathing. We meet him is a St. Louis cemetery, where he sleeps whenever he doesn’t have money for a seedy boarding house. There he converses with Della Miles, who got trapped inside when the gates were locked for the evening.


Della and Jack spend the night in deep discussion, though she is everything Jack is not: a devout Methodist whose father is a bishop, a well-read high school English teacher, a respected member of her community, beloved by her family, and African American. She is neat as a pin; Jack wears used clothing. In his bleakest moments, he sees himself as a metaphorical Prince of Darkness. Della, who once mistook him for a minister, tries to offer succor, but Jack declares himself unworthy: “I am a simple man who was brought up by a complicated man. So I have mannerisms and some vocabulary. People can be misled.”


Della persists in her belief that good things lurk inside of Jack. He begs to differ: “I’m a gifted thief. I lie fluently, often for no reason. I’m a bad but confirmed drunk. I have no talent for friendship. What talents I do possess I make no use of. I am aware instantly and almost obsessively of anything fragile, with the thought that I will break it.” Jack has indeed been a petty thief, though his recent stint in prison was for a theft he did not commit.


Is any of this grounds for friendship or romance? Whoa! It’s St. Louis, the 1940s, and Jim Crow isn’t just the custom; it’s the law. Jack is ultimately about how the two traverse such dangerous terrain. Robinson’s novel is fascinating, spiritual, and literary. It’s one in which Hamlet, Macbeth, and lofty things such as “infinity [and] eternity” freely comingle. Milton is bandied about as well, and it’s no stretch to see Jack as a soldier in celestial warfare akin to that of Paradise Lost. The novel is told from Jack’s point of view, and his spoken words are not nearly as troubling as the voice inside his head–his thought bubbles put to the page as it were.


On the surface Jack is about race, but it digs deeper. Is redemption even possible in a no-holds-barred battle between Methodist grace and Presbyterian Calvinism? It is rare to read a novel in which such questions are posed for contemplation rather than proselytization. Robinson is a wonderful stylist, but she also understands that a great book has to have substance, not just a narrative. In many ways, Jack is an anti-postmodernist novel that is light on action and heavy on judgmental reflection.


Despite his protestations, Jack is also a complex man who is an agnostic when it comes to believing there is a balm in Gilead. He is tortured by the disappointments he has showered upon his family, his emotional scars, and his inability to negotiate between his values, guilt, impulses, and desires. Jack is surely one of the very best novels of 2020, even allowing for a resolution that some readers will find implausible. It is, above all else, a book so beautifully composed that you will come away knowing the exquisite difference between a writer and someone who merely types.  


Rob Weir   

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