Tuesday, April 05, 2005

Book #10: Gilead by Marilynne Robinson

In an odd coincidence, I started this book shortly after writing my last post. Gilead is written as a letter from an elderly preacher in rural Iowa, John Ames, to his 7-year-old son. Ames is not long for the world (he's 77) and wants to write down all of the things he thinks he would have told his son if he could have lived long enough to do so. Among these things are stories about his grandfather, who ran with John Brown (the novel takes place in 1956) and grew eccentric in his old age, his older brother, who studied philosophy in Germany and broke his father's heart by rejecting religion, and his best friend Boughton, who, like Ames, stayed in Gilead all of his life and became a preacher.

Robinson has written Ames beautifully; he's a well-worn character with remarkably subtle independent life. In fact, "subtle" is the best word for this book in general. The conflict of the plot, if there truly is one, revolves around the return to town of Ames' namesake, Boughton's wayward son Jack. Jack was involved in a town scandal when younger and has apparently lived a drifter's life. Ames is unclear why Jack is there, but the reader can quickly ascertain that he's having a sort of mid-life crisis and looking for forgiveness from both his father and Ames, who he calls "Papa." Jack also clearly has a past with Ames' much younger wife (in fact, she may also have been involved in Jack's scandal), although Ames just as clearly doesn't suspect a thing.

The possibility of redemption is the overriding theme of the book. Ames struggles to find it within himself to forgive Jack. In one of the best sections of the book, Ames, Jack, and Ames' wife are sitting on a porch together just after dusk. Ames is reflective, and both Jack and Ames' wife (Jack calls her Lulu, which is the only time she's named in the book, I think) believe that he's fallen asleep. Jack offers her a cigarette, and she refuses, saying that she'd like one but it wouldn't be seemly. She laughs at herself for embracing the seemly life, but points out (again, very subtly) that she's grown to love it. The message is clear: Ames has redeemed her with his simple love. Jack longs for this sort of redemption.

Ames opens the book by discussing a letter he received from his father (also a preacher) which he burned. As the book unfolds, it turns out that his father moved to the Gulf Coast at his brother's invitation. Apparently, both the brother and father attempted many times through his life to get Ames to move, to explore the world, to use his obvious intellect to expand his horizons, but Ames has loved his simple life too much to leave. He writes that he feared leaving because he feared that he wouldn't return. He has instead embraced Gilead and the periphery of society in his monkish life, which some wise men have been doing since the dawn of man. This isn't a rejection of the world so much as a Taoist embrace of the small simple things within his reach. Ames knows that experience is seductive; he simply has no interest in the world outside of Gilead.

The novel unfolds with slow deliberation, as Ames ruminates about religion and how it connects people with each other and with God. I couldn't put it down.

Update: Ann Hulbert on Slate has a similar, albeit better written, take.


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