A father offers communion in a letter to his son

In the ashes of memory, a pastor finds stories and wisdom to pass down

There is a balm in "Gilead," and I hope many people find it. For a country dazzled by literary and military pyrotechnics, this quiet new novel from Marilynne Robinson couldn't be less compatible with the times - or more essential.

Her narrator is a 77-year-old pastor in Gilead, Iowa, who's been told he has only a few months to live. That might sound depressing or boring, but from Robinson's pen, these pages flow with the intensity of a prayer, both anguished and assured. The whole novel is a letter, "an experiment with candor," written by Rev. Ames to his 7-year-old son. Knowing he's "about to put on imperishability," Ames writes, "I'm trying to tell you things I might never have thought to tell you if I had brought you up myself, father and son, in the usual companionable way." The result is a testimony of struggle and faith over three generations that's more intimate and revealing than most parents can articulate in decades.

Almost a quarter century has passed since the appearance of Robinson's previous novel, "Housekeeping," which won the PEN/Faulkner Award for best first novel and was a finalist for the Pulitzer Prize. Since then she's published only nonfiction and taught at the Iowa Writers' Workshop. At this rate, she won't fill a long shelf, but with novels like this, grumbling would be ungrateful.

"Gilead" wanders in that casual way that fellow masters of reflection like Henry David Thoreau or Annie Dillard manage without seeming vagrant. Ames's narrative is a mixture of wry commentary on the ministerial life, heartfelt reflections on God, and passing observations on what's happening that day. He makes a good effort to keep the preachy inflection out of his voice, but when it comes through, you can hear what fine guidance he must have given over the course of 2,250 sermons.

He remarried late, after losing his first wife when he was young, and the decades of solitary service to his church were often lonely. Now, blessed with a child he never thought he'd have, the prospect of leaving his family behind for the glory beyond hits him squarely in the heart. But he continues on with his duties at church, feeling fine for the most part, meeting friends, watching his son, and knowing more intensely than ever the Lord's extravagance. "One of the pleasures of these days," he writes, "is that I notice them all, minute by minute."

Ames admits that he's "one of those righteous for whom the rejoicing in heaven will be comparatively restrained," but he recalls a store of wild anecdotes about his grandfather, a Union chaplain in the Civil War who saw visions of God frequently. The old one-eyed man was so militant that he signaled the start of church by firing his pistol. He rode with the abolition terrorist John Brown. He followed the Gospel so literally that he became a kleptomaniac in service to the poor.

There's a touch of Louise Erdrich in these tragic-comic anecdotes. But the most profound moments arise from stories of spiritual intimacy with his own father, who was a preacher of a very different sort. Again and again, he returns to a trip they took on foot to find Grandfather's grave in Kansas during the devastating drought of 1892. Though just 12 at the time, Ames knew his father and grandfather had split over bitter disagreements about the value of war. The trip, he sensed, was his father's too late attempt to forgive and receive forgiveness from a man he loved but could never talk to openly. Ames won't make that mistake.

The plot of "Gilead" - if the term "plot" can be used - involves the reappearance of his best friend's son, a ne'er-do-well named after him: John Ames Boughton. Ames never liked him as a boy, didn't even like him when he baptized him as an infant, and grew to despise him when he threw his friend's family into real crisis. Now, years later, Ames can't help noticing that this young man is about the same age as his own wife and that his son loves playing catch with him. He's worried and angry that Boughton seems to be making plans for the day when a spot opens up at his dining room table.

And so, much of this letter is a conflicted effort to warn his son about the kind of man Boughton is, even while knowing that he should take a higher view of his namesake. "Right worship is right perception," he reminds his son and himself, but "it is hard for me to see the good faith in John Ames Boughton, and that's a terrible problem."

Working out that problem is not easy. Boughton "has considerable experience antagonizing people," and he seems to relish needling Ames with theological questions that put him on the defensive or make him feel evasive. If there's a blessing to be had from wrestling with this man, it's not quickly apparent to Ames. But in the extremity of his physical condition and familial worries, Ames discovers the sacraments in ordinary events and memories of daily life: watching the moon rise as the sun sets, taking bread from his dad's ash-covered hands, praying wholeheartedly for a man he's never really liked.

There are passages here of such profound, hard-won wisdom and spiritual insight that they make your own life seem richer. "A good sermon is one side of a passionate conversation," Ames notes, and so is a good book. There's something perhaps a little too sacred and private about this novel for the typical book-club kaffeeklatsch, but as we head into the holiday season, if it really is the thought that counts, I can't imagine a better gift than this one. Speaking of the material world he's about to leave behind, Ames advises his son, "This is an interesting planet. It deserves all the attention you can give it." The same can be said for "Gilead," a quiet, deep celebration of life that you must not miss.

Ron Charles is the Monitor's book editor. E-mail Ron Charles.

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