by Marilynne Robinson
(Farrar, Straus and Giroux)
Housekeeping, Marilynne Robinson's first book, is the great Northwest novel. (Really, what's even close?) Robinson began writing it in Seattle in the late 1970s, doodling extended metaphors when she was supposed to be writing her dissertation on Shakespeare's Henry VI, Part II, at the University of Washington. I've read her dissertation and it's remarkably dull, but her metaphors, over the next few years, turned into a one-of-a-kind wonder book: An intensely symbolic story, told with complete assurance in a clear and mythic language that recalls the King James Bible and American visionaries like Nathaniel Hawthorne and Henry David Thoreau, of two girls in a small Idaho town and the transient aunt who comes to take care of them.
The paperback edition of Housekeeping that I first read in the mid-'80s had a short author bio that ended with the heartening sentence, "She is working on a second novel." She may well have been, but nothing appeared, except an almost tremblingly angry nonfiction book about nuclear pollution in the UK and, more recently, a collection of "essays on modern thought" that are most notable for her quite gorgeous fury at most things modern.
But now, after nearly a quarter century, the second novel is suddenly here. There's no great drama given to explain the gap, not Ralph Ellison's fire-lost manuscript or J. D. Salinger's peevish withdrawal. She was just writing other things in the meantime, teaching, and bringing up her kids. The book, called Gilead, is set in the 1950s in a small town in Iowa by that name, and it takes the form of a journal, a testament of sorts, written by an old Congregationalist preacher to his young son, the child of a late, un-expected marriage to a younger woman. He marvels at his recent good fortune, made bittersweet only by his certainty that his bad heart will keep him from enjoying more of it. He recalls a family history dominated by his grandfather, a fellow preacher and a one-eyed, fire-breathing abolitionist--"like a man everlastingly struck by lightning"--from the generation that made "Bloody" Kansas the front line in the battle over slavery.
Anyone will want to make comparisons between Gilead and Housekeeping, and that's only natural--I'll do it too, don't worry--but what struck me first is the new book's relation to the less-read books of hers that came in between. It would be difficult to overstate how witheringly furious those books are. Robinson was, by her own testimony, radicalized by her investigations into Sellafield, the British nuclear plant whose radioactive pollution she lamented in Mother Country. When she made a rare lecture appearance here a couple of years ago, over a decade after that book appeared, she still seemed consumed by the abominations she had reported. In her next book, The Death of Adam, she carried that sense of outrage, along with her scathing Olympian tone, into essays about our misunderstandings of historical figures like the abolitionists, Charles Darwin, and John Calvin. Imagine Sinéad O'Connor, with an interest in the early Protestants.
But there is little sign of that Robinson in Gilead. Or rather, she is submerged in the character of the grandfather, a firebrand worthy of the woman who wrote of her destructive urges in Mother Country as if she were smiteful Yahweh herself: "If I had my way I would not leave one stone upon another." The grandfather's legacy flows under the story like the turbulent current of a more passionate and prophetic age, but he's a disturbing and distant figure. It's as if, in returning to the novel, Robinson has placed her own fury at one remove and found again a more open-ended novelistic consciousness. Her narrator, John Ames, is a far more modest man, even-handed and forgiving almost to a fault, who, to his later regret, burned his own most incendiary sermon--which declared the flu epidemic of 1918 the Lord's judgment for World War I--rather than deliver it.
Gilead is a patient book, and it requires some patience from the reader. Not that it's difficult. In fact, it's the opposite: It's determinedly simple, at least on its face. Ames often turns toward the simple formulations, as if he has had a glimpse into chaos and has chosen to look away. Much of the story is uneventful and reads like a sermon on the wonders of the everyday, with moment after moment of Ames marveling, in a way you might expect from someone given both the late gift of a young family and a terminal diagnosis, at the miraculous beauty of the ordinary things around him: "Wherever you turn your eyes the world can shine like transfiguration." There's no sentiment I agree with more, but in dramatic terms it's hardly enough to hang a novel on.
But patience is rewarded. Of Housekeeping's many qualities, the one that pushed it into greatness was its ending: A few pages describing one sister's absence from another that reach a pitch of almost unbearable melancholy. (They are my favorite pages in any book, and I can hardly stand to look at them for more than a few sentences at a time.) It's unfair to compare Gilead to the perfection of its predecessor, but the moment you recognize that the second novel was indeed written by the same woman as the first is at the arrival of a character named Jack Boughton, the ne'er-do-well son of Ames' best friend. Christened John Ames Boughton as a sort of surrogate son for the then-childless Ames, Jack turned out to be a sad, insidious malcontent: a prodigal son to his father and a "devilment" to his namesake, taunting Ames with petty teen crimes. He left town soon after committing a greater crime (though not a prosecutable one), and now has returned 20 years later, for reasons unexplained.
Ames puts off revealing the details of that transgression--"that story may be more than you need to know," he writes his son--and manages to whip up a nearly gothic sense of menace out of the outwardly unobjectionable events of Jack's return into his life: ambiguous comments that Ames thinks may be renewed taunts, and Jack's apparent insinuation into Ames' new family. I don't think it's giving anything away to reveal that this does not turn out to be a Misery-style story of obsession, but rather a more ordinary--but completely compelling--drama of forgiveness and recognition. Like Ruth and Sylvie in Housekeeping, John Ames and John Ames Boughton turn out both to be the sort of yearning, wandering misfits who look longingly into the lit windows of other people's houses. They are hardly brought together at the end, but they are brought close enough that the persistence of the distance between them, and the pedestrian courage of their attempts to cross it, give their story a deep sense of melancholy that any lover of Housekeeping will gladly recognize.