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   


On Display in Brattleboro


Figuration Never Died


Ice Shanties

Ice Visions

Our Storied Landscape

Brattleboro Museum and Art Center, Battleboro, Vermont

Through February 14, 2021.


I know I’m starting to sound like a shill for the Brattleboro Museum and Art Center (BAMC). Forgive me, it’s just that I’m constantly impressed that a museum in a town of 12,000 people consistently launches such fascinating exhibits in such small galleries. BAMC always manages to display a tantalizing mix of the things one expects to see in an art museum and others that stretch expectations.


The most traditional exhibit is Figuration Never Died: New York Painterly Painting. The subtitle is neither a typo nor a redundancy. In the first half of the 20th century abstract expression came into its own, with individualism on both the creative and psychological level embedded within non-representational works. It remained in vogue in the 1950s but dominant styles tend to spawn the seeds of their own fall from grace. In New York City, a group of painters began to explore ways to fuse the “painterly” qualities of expressionism–its emphasis on form, color, and texture instead of precise lines–but apply them in figurative (recognizable) ways. BAMC presents works from ten such artists. 


A good example comes from Robert De Niro. Sr. His Portrait of a Young Man with Red Face (1961) is as titled. We see a figure against a swirled blue background that our brains instantly register as a man, despite the heavy black outline of his face, the indistinct lines, and the unrealistic colors. It makes one ponder the porous boundaries of art without forcing the viewer to ask, “What is it?” (Yes, De Niro was the father of actor Robert De Niro.) 



The same qualities come through in Paul Georges, Artist in Studio. We see him standing in front of a seated nude model–in a figurative manner–but the overall look is that it’s about to explode into a Duchamp or a Picasso. Perhaps the most recognizable name in the exhibit is Alex Katz. The other seven on display are:  Lois Dodd, Jane Freilicher, Grace Hartigan, Wolf Kahn, Albert Kresch, Paul Resika, and Anne Tabachnick. For those in Western Massachusetts, Kahn has a localconnection; he briefly taught World War II refugees–most of whom were Jews fleeing fascism–in Cummington, MA.   


Artists draw inspiration from many things. Andy Yoder found his in “The Great Show Spill of 1990,” hence his title of Overboard. Five crates of Nikes fell off a freighter and some 61,820 washed up on the shores of Oregon and Washington. (You might remember that this was about the time Air Jordans went supernova.) Yoder and others fashioned art from the flotsam. You are confronted by what looks to be a mall display of basketball shoes. Most are actually cardboard, parts of shoes, packing materials, and other flotsam fashioned into artistic kicks. Some are whimsical, some representational, and some fanciful. It’s a riot of color and imagination.



BMAC generally has a local focus and this time there are three good ones. Federico Pardo brings together his facility with photography, filmmaking, and academic training to show us a slice of Vermont folklife. Ice Shanties: Fishing, People & Culture displays photos on aluminum of an ephemeral seasonal phenomenon that baffles non-New Englanders: ice fishing. What tempts someone to fish over a drilled hole in the ice during subzero temperatures? It helps if you have a shanty. They run the gamut from makeshift plywood boxes and repurposed packing crates to more elaborate buildings that are like mini hunting cabins. The ephemeral part is that if you don’t get them to shore in time, they become lake and river wrecks. Pardo’s photos capture both the indomitable spirit of those who engage in ice fishing, and ethereal beauty of the depths of winter.  


Photographer Erik Hoffner was drawn to ice fishing differently. If you’re not a Vermonter, you might not know the name Wilson “Snowflake” Bentley (1865-1931). He  proved no two snowflakes are alike by sitting outside in winter, capturing flakes on black boards, and photographing them on a special microscope/camera of his devising. Hoffner, who was inspired by Bentley, wondered what he would see if he looked into ice fishing holes the next day, after the evening temperatures refroze them. He ventured onto the ice, brushed away the snow, and recorded his observations. Some look like the iris of a frozen eye, some like galaxies, and some are more abstract. Fascinating stuff!


The final local exhibit is one in which yours truly has a small part. Our Storied Landscape; Revealing the Brattleboro Words Trail is the sgraffito ceramic map fashioned by Cynthia Parker-Houghton. It accompanies Brattleboro Words, an NEH-funded project to collect stories and create audio tours and podcasts of characters who have lived in or near Brattleboro. Some are famous, some eccentrics, and some more famous locally than outside of Vermont. The map is Parker-Houghton’s clever scratch depictions of rivers, valleys, mountains, and landforms that will eventually (in paper form) orient those touring the region in search of the fascinating people tucked away in the folds of the landscape. (My contribution was a podcast on Madame Antoinette Sherri, who redefines the term eccentric.)



Also on display is Jazz by John Gibson, a painting of two opposing balls. They have target-like patterns on them and the effect is akin to a mismatched pair of googly eyes.


by Rachel Portesi, is a series of architectural hair styles photographed as tintypes. She asks us to see in them as a veritable laundry list of social issues but in my view, she mises the mark by trying too hard to freight a fun thing with too much baggage. Oddly, her small images are much more engaging than the larger ones, which work against her tintype model.


Rob Weir




Jess Jocoy: November 2020 Artist of the Month


Jess Jocoy

Such a Long Way

Jess Jocoy Music


Most female singers are sopranos, but I have a thing for women with low voices. Meet Jess Jocoy. This Seattle native dreamed of moving to Nashville and becoming a country star like Miranda Lambert. She’s made it to Nashville, but she might have to content herself to being another Mary Chapin Carpenter if for no other reason, her voice has too much depth to be Lambert. I also suspect her songs are deeper than the usual fare on the Billboard AAA charts. My suspicions were aroused the moment I heard “Existential Crossroads,” the opening song from her LP Such a Long Way. She calls it a “big picture” song, and it’s like a values clarification exercise” set to music: It’s a well-oiled machine, this American dream/Oh, I like the idea but it’s cruel and it’s mean and/She’s a thorn in your side but she shortens the night/And the love you found wasn’t love that you need.


That one is subdued, but Jocoy goes into band mode on “TheBallad of Two Lovers,” an unusual love song in that it’s a whopping crane dance of approach, back away, approach, back away again with an uncertain outcome. There’s a splash of old-time country in “Love Her Wild,” with lines like Try to love her wild/’Cause you can’t love her tame that makes it a supplicating companion to “The Ballad of Two Lovers.” Behind Jocoy’s earnest voice lurks some danger: …she’s pissed at the world and I swear/I saw her loading her gun. There’s also some of that in “Castles Made of Sand,” a father-son showdown over a young man’s need to carve his own identity rather than being a chip off the old block. Listen for changing colors in Jocoy’s voice that make the electric guitar interludes seem perfect counterpoints for the song’s acoustic wrapper.


I don’t know what singles have been released, but “Hallelujah” would be a great choice. It’s catchy, energetic, loud in places, and stretches Jocoy’s voice in good ways. Jocoy explains that her line When I give away all my hallelujahs is a metaphor for the things of ourselves that we yield for the wrong reasons, and a “call out for someone to bring you back to a good place.” You might also deduce that she is suspicious of easy answers.


By her own admission, Jocoy has trouble understanding romance and relationships. If you too have struggled, you’ll find some solace in her back-to-back of “Long Way Home” and “Aching to Feel Alive.” The first one explores the incompatible feelings of yearning to break connections yet knowing it’s probably a mistake; the second is a personal struggle with wanting to unlock a part of herself she’s not sure exists, though perhaps a spirit lover holds the key.


Two more outstanding tracks are “Numb,” her take on our current national divisions and how it leaves her as baffled and worn down as the title. After surviving the recent election, there’s something strangely soothing about “Numb,” though maybe it’s Jocoy’s voice. The album’s title derives from the refrain of “Hope" and it’s her pure songbird turn in which instruments sink into the background and let her warble like a robin on a sunny morning.


I suspect we’ll be hearing a lot more from Jess Jocoy. She’s adoit as both a solo performer and fronting a band. For the life of me, I can’t decide which iteration I’d most like to catch in concert.


Rob Weir