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by Marilynne Robinson (FSG, 2008)

When they heard their father stir and wake, Jack carried him to his chair on the porch and settled the quilt around him and read to him from the newspaper while Glory made potato soup almost the way he had always liked it, without onions but with butter melted into it and crackers crumbled on top. Jack fed him, held his cup for him. The old man accepted these attentions without comment. Then Jack changed into his work clothes and went out to the garden, where his father could watch him, as it seemed he did until he began to doze off. After a little while Jack came back and found him asleep and carried him to bed again, slipping the crooked body out of the robe with great care. It seemed to her there was a peacefulness about him that came with resignation, with the extinction of that last hope, like a perfect humility undistracted by the possible, the unrealized, the yet to be determined. He worked on the DeSoto, then sat in the porch and read till the sun went down. He went out for a stroll, just to look at the place, he said, and came back in an hour, stone sober. It have been the saddest day of her life, one of the saddest of his. And yet, all in all, it wasn't a bad day.

The humbly-titled Home presents intriguing questions to the serious reader, who is likely to know three things about this book even before it is opened. First, anyone who reads about books probably knows that the narrative in Home is concurrent with that of Marilynne Robinson's last novel, Gilead. Second, the serious reader has almost certainly read Gilead. The third thing comes in only for people who read the book more or less when it came out, in late 2004: a lot of verbiage has flowed beneath the bridge of one's nose since then. Gilead will have left behind sweet impressions but blurred recollections.

The earlier book, named after the town in which its action is set, is the fictional memoir, written in 1956, of a 79 year-old clergyman, John Ames. It is addressed to his little boy, the child born of his late marriage. Ames has known his young, attractive, and somewhat mysterious wife, Lila, for almost ten years, but thanks to a heart problem, he does not expect that their son will ever know him — not as a man. Hence the memoir. Gradually, its thoughtful, almost philosophical entries — punctuated by rather thrilling recollections of Ames's own boyhood, particularly of a trip to Kansas in search of his abolitionist grandfather's grave — shade into something more like a diary. This shift is triggered by the return to Gilead of John Ames Boughton, Ames's namesake and the prodigal, much-loved son of Ames's best friend and fellow-clergyman, Robert Boughton. The elder Boughton is clearly dying, but that is not what brings his son back to Gilead. Jack Boughton left Gilead twenty years earlier, very much under a cloud, returning at the deaths of neither his bastard daughter nor his devoted mother. The contemplative tone of Gilead's earlier entries gives way to suspicion, resentment, and even self-recrimination. With ample reason to mistrust the now fortyish Jack, Ames soon begins to suspect that his namesake has set out to lure his young wife into adultery. The dark night of Ames's soul is painfully extended, but the novel ends with a few startling, transformative revelations, as Jack prepares to leave his hometown, possibly forever.

The grave beauty of Gilead is such that noisy enthusiasm for the book would seem to betray inattentiveness on the reader's part. There is nothing dry or harsh about the surface of the novel; while it may be a struggle to think about, it is not a struggle to read. The onrush of big questions that cover John Ames's pages need not trouble the reader who only wants to get on with the story, so long as that reader understands that the story is about men who are genuinely troubled by big questions. Gilead is touched by some kind of grace.

Diligent readers may find the time to re-read Gilead before opening Home, but before I explain why I think that that's not the best way of approaching the new book, I'd like to run through a few of those intriguing questions. What was Marilynne Robinson thinking? How does she want us to read this book? (Does she, for the matter of that, even care how we read it?) Ought we to strain to remember everything that John Ames committed to his diary, in Gilead; and, if we simply can't remember, ought we to haul Gilead down from the shelf to refresh our memory? In the event that we haven't read Gilead, would Robinson think it a mistake to read Home first? She must know that a crop of young readers who have come along since Gilead will probably lack either the patience or the budget for two books. But what about reading them both for the first time immediately, going straight from Gilead to Home? What about ignoring Gilead altogether, and regarding Home, with modernist scruples, as a free-standing work of art?

Perhaps not all of these questions press with equal intensity before one begins reading Home; but they are sure to stir up a racket in the back of one's mind well before the the midpoint. The itch to have another look at Gilead became almost irresistible for me on page 206, about two-thirds of the way in. I'll explain why in a moment, but for now I want to say that I fought the impulse to put Home down and to "find out" what had happened offstage, as it were, in the earlier book. I can think of very few novelists who provoke the urge to put one of their novels down in order to scan the pages of another. Balzac and Faulkner make up a very short list. (Proust doesn't count, and the yen to go back to Roderick Hudson for an earlier look at the title character of The Princess Casamassima will be stoutly quashed by the reproving glare of the Master's shade.) What marks these instances apart from Robinson's dyad is that the same characters appear in different stories, at different times of their lives. Here, the stories are, as I say, concurrent, happening at the same time and involving the same people. This is not to say that we are presented with a latter-day Rashomon. There is no idea, here, of deciding what really happened. Everything that Robinson writes down really happened. That is never in doubt. But we all see different things, and see the same things differently. Countless novels alternate points of view — but within the framework of a single book, a single novel. If only because the story that we're told from the point of view of Robert Boughton's youngest child, the 38 year-old Glory Boughton, requires us to hold a separate book, the ordinary question of flipping a few pages back is replaced by a more imposing restriction.

I resisted the impulse to go back to Gilead before finishing Home because that's what Home seemed to be telling me to do — resist. That meant that I was stuck, as I think I was intended to be stuck, on page 206, with Glory's account of the disconsolateness that settles on her home when her brother returns from a service preached by John Ames, convinced that Ames was speaking retributively to him, insulting him in public. Glory knows only what Jack could tell her about the sermon, but I, once upon a time, had known more. I'd frankly forgotten the incident. When I did go back, I discovered that preaching the sermon was indeed momentous to Ames, but that it had not been intended as an insult. I could also see why, as a sermon on the expulsion of Hagar and Ishmael in Genesis, it would not stick in my mind. But I did not spoil the suspense of Home by making a corroborative inquiry. I waited until the second novel had come to an end as transcendent as its predecessor's.

The suspense of Home is a very curious entity, because nothing happens in the ordinary sense of fictional event. There are no peripeties to shake up our understanding of what has gone before. Something else "happens" instead, and I can describe this something only with a homely culinary comparison to the setting of a custard. To make a custard, you combine sugar, milk, and eggs in a saucepan, and then you stir them over heat. You stir them constantly, and you regulate the heat with great care; for if the eggs approach the boil, they will curdle. All the stirring in the world, conversely, won't make a custard if the heat is too low. A successful custard thickens gradually — very gradually — and because it sets as it cools there is no voilà! moment. Except in the case of disaster: the wrong kind of voilà. As with whipping cream, the cook faces the danger of makiing one turn too many. The custard breaks into a lumpy mass, the cream becomes butter and whey — boom! Making a custard involves an exciting eventlessness.

I don't want to make the suspense in Home sound "meta" — a matter of technique rather than of story. The object is not to find out if Robinson will tell her story well. That is never in doubt. The reader turns the pages expectantly in order to find out whether Jack, his father, and Glory will ever discover their true relation to each other — which is to say, sub specie aeternitatis, under the eye of God. As Boughton's health fails, we grasp that he is not going to arrive at a new bearing on his son. Just as intensely, we expect that Jack and Glory will establish a genuine rapport, a connection that replaces the few awkward remnants of a sibling relationship that lurk behind their re-acquaintance upon Jack's return to Gilead. But what will it be?

Rather than blot this page with an answer to that question, I'd like to note the astuteness of Robinson's time-setting, which works in many ways. In 1956, the Civil Rights movement was beginning to coalesce; black Americans were approaching a point of no return in their demand for social equity. This point of no return would be the moment in which their demand alienated those "benevolent" white Americans who regarded themselves as intending to grant full civil rights "when the time came." That time was never going to come. When Boughton dismisses, as unnecessary troublemaking, the Montgomery disturbances that Jack insistently watches on the television set that he has prodded Glory into purchasing — when Jack's is the clearest voice to be raised on behalf of civil rights for black Americans — we know that the fire has gone out of the radicalism that made Ames's grandfather (but not Boughton's) a fiery abolitionist. In 1956, the old champions have retired in slumber.

Also in 1956, no one is going to speak of Jack's character defects, such as they may be, in pathological terms. No one is going to ask, "What's wrong with Jack?" with the idea that a therapist or a drug might be looked to for help. We can't, either. Jack's problems, in Gilead in 1956, are squarely and wholly moral. Maybe Jack has a drinking problem, but it is not going to be resolved by calling it "alcoholism" or treating it as such. Robinson's grasp of the first principles that govern our characters from far beyond the reach of malady is unyielding. This may be tough on Jack, and we ourselves might not wish to return to times of such austerity, but by disposing of today's diagnostics as anachronisms, Robinson assures that the moral solvent of her story remains pellucid.

Her father taught his children, never doubting, that there was a single path from antiquity to eternity. Learn the psalms and ponder the ways of the early church. Know what must be known. Ancient fathers taught their ancient children, who taught their ancient children, these very things. Puritan Milton with his pagan muses. It is like a voice heard from another room, singing for the pleasure of the song, and then you know it, too, and through you it moves by accident and necessity down generations.

There could not be a medical explanation of the fact that Jack has had so much trouble with trying to pass this song on through his unbelief. There is only the possibility, hateful to benign men of God, that divine grace has been withheld from him. That possibility opens an abyss that has not confronted the readers of serious fiction in English in a very long time. (September 2008)

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