‘Jack’ proves Marilynne Robinson’s gift for delineating character

The fourth novel set in fictional Gilead is a prequel of sorts, focusing on the black sheep of the Boughton family and his relationship with Della.

Farrar, Straus and Giroux
"Jack: A Novel" by Marilynne Robinson, Farrar, Straus and Giroux, 320 pp.

Marilynne Robinson introduced John Ames “Jack” Boughton to readers 16 years ago in the first of her acclaimed Gilead novels, set in small-town Iowa in the 1950s. Loyal readers already know plenty about the complicated character who headlines her fourth Gilead book: a shifty, tormented, yet beloved prodigal son who abandoned his hometown and family for 20 years. 

Robinson changes settings here from 1950s Gilead to 1940s St. Louis and zooms in on a pivotal relationship in the series. The book is a particularly welcome arrival in this time of upheaval: It's as quietly thoughtful, human, and heartrending as Robinson’s earlier work, while illuminating the blatant racial injustices of a not-so-distant era. Inevitably, it makes us reflect on America today.

For new readers, “Jack” is a can-they-or-can’t-they romance, a dialogue-heavy dance where a full one-fifth of the book covers a single overnight walk. It could be disorienting, but there’s also plenty for newcomers to savor in the characters’ philosophical, multilayered conversations, and in Jack’s convoluted search for solace. 

“Have you ever noticed that if you strike a match in a dark room, it seems to spread quite a lot of light. But if you strike one in a room that is already light, it seems to make no difference?...” he hears from Della Miles, a schoolteacher and also the daughter of a preacher. “If you add light to light, there should be more of it. As much more as if you add light to darkness. But I don’t think there is.”

For returning readers the plot’s conclusion is beside the point; we’re here for the journey. (Warning, spoilers follow.) We already know Jack and Della will eventually marry. We even know when they met, how she spilled an armful of papers on the pavement in a rainstorm, how she mistakenly said “Thank you, Reverend,” when Jack crossed the street to aid her, wearing a dark suit. 

The complications, we also know, are immense. Della is a Black woman, and Robinson mercilessly lays out the humiliating, dangerous road facing interracial couples in that era of anti-miscegenation laws. Their loving families support them unreservedly as individuals; together it’s another question.

The situation would daunt anyone, but Jack’s own nature makes it worse. He comes from privileged origins, but has squandered opportunities since boyhood, sunk in what a modern reader might think of as anxiety and depression, though Robinson’s characters don’t use such words. 

“I have never heard of a white man who got so little good out of being a white man,” Della tells Jack after a rudely interrupted first date. 

When they meet, Jack is freshly out of prison, barely hanging on to a hellish rented room with financial infusions from a brother, fighting the same old demons and insecurities.

 “I’m a gifted thief,” he confesses in one unequivocal self-assessment. “I lie fluently, often for no reason. I’m a bad but confirmed drunk. I have no talent for friendship. What talents I do have I make no use of. I am aware instantly and almost obsessively of anything fragile, with the thought that I must and will break it. … I isolate myself as a way of limiting the harm I can do.” 

Earlier, when a minister suggests he is looking for forgiveness, Jack replies that forgiveness scares him. “It seems like a kind of antidote to regret, and there are things I haven’t regretted sufficiently. And never will. I know that for a fact.” 

We despair for Jack but never entirely give up on him, as kindness and moments of grace inevitably shine through his struggles. He frequently brings to mind another wayward son from literary history, Norman MacLean’s brother Paul, in the autobiographical novel “A River Runs Through It.” As MacLean wrote, “(It) is true we can seldom help those closest to us… It is those we live with and should know who elude us. But we can still love them – we can love completely without complete understanding.”

Della’s character is never as clearly delineated as Jack’s; it’s sometimes hard to see how this successful, beautiful, warmhearted woman, “a perfect Christian lady” up to this point, will risk so much for his sake. But Robinson reveals new depths to her as well, as when she confesses that the world as it is fills her with wrath. “I think I feel a little like God must feel the second before He just gives up and rains brimstone. I’ve heard people blame Him for that! I don’t blame Him. I can imagine the satisfaction.” 

Between rage and love, generosity and mercy, betrayal and forgiveness, we can’t help but hope better things lie ahead beyond the painful history we already know.

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