A few days later the younger son gathered all he had and traveled to a distant country, and there he squandered his property in dissolute living.
—The Parable of the Prodigal Son
The two great European narcotics, alcohol and Christianity.
Had I an atheist friend who asked, “Can you tell me please what this religion business is all about, not as some metaphysical hypothesis or historical phenomenon, but what it really means to be religious?” I might hand him or her a copy of Marilynne Robinson’s novel Gilead. “Read this,” I’d say, “and it will give you a pretty good idea.”
And had I a religious friend, a co-religionist friend, who asked, “Can you tell me please what’s wrong with us, not the obvious corruptions of the gospel that any sophomore skeptic can point out, but the fundamental sicknesses that live so close to the core of our faith that one has to wonder if they’re not essential to the faith itself?” I might recommend Robinson’s latest novel Home. “Read this,” I’d say, “and it might give you a clue.”
But if my inquisitive friend were not so much interested in religious matters as in the possibilities of fiction or in my own opinion as to what describes a great writer of fiction, I would hand him or her the two novels at once. “Read these,” I’d say, “and then consider that the same person was capable of writing them both.”
I have been told that my job here is to write an essay on the novel Home and not to feel that I must write a book review in the strict sense. Still I feel some of a book reviewer’s responsibility, which I take to mean helping a reader as cash-strapped as myself decide whether to spend $25.00 on a book. I will discharge that duty as efficiently as I can.
Go to a book store, find a copy of Home, open it to page 281, and read the five-paragraph section that begins with “The heat of the morning” and ends on the next page with “if it ever has a home at all.” If this is not enough to make you reach for your wallet (or tuck the book under your coat), you will not enjoy reading Home. I will go further and say you do not deserve to enjoy reading Home.
Or, if you want something short enough to quote here, I can give you this from page 14:
The big old radio grew warm and gave off an odor like rancid hair tonic. It reminded her of a nervous salesman. And it made a sullen hiss and sputter if she moved away from it. It was the kind of bad companion loneliness makes welcome.
You might continue reading from there until you feel that the author’s run of memorable sentences has played itself out, which is another way of getting to page 281 and the paragraphs previously mentioned.
The character in Home lonely enough to welcome the radio’s bad companionship is a thirty-eight year-old ex-schoolteacher named Glory, who provides the narrative point of view and, by this reviewer’s lights at least, most of the novel’s fascination. She has come home to Gilead after a failed love affair to get her bearings and look after her dying father, Reverend Boughton, the best friend of Gilead’s saintly narrator John Ames. Home shares characters, plot, and thematic concerns with that earlier novel, but in something of the same way as Martin Luther and Karl Marx share nationality, language, and certain traits of temperament. It is not a sequel, much less a clone.
Shortly after she arrives at her father’s house, Glory is joined by her brother Jack, prodigal and beloved son, who has come home in the midst of his own foundering marriage and sobriety. He is not only Glory’s double, in the sense of their parallel predicaments, but also her former fiancé’s double, in the sense that, as Jack confesses to his sister, he is the type of man “vulnerable women” fall in love with.
One gathers that Glory has been vulnerable all her life, as a daughter, sister, and lover, vulnerable and always undervalued, and the diminishment spreads like a stain from the book even to the book jacket, where the publisher tells us that “Jack is one of the great characters in recent literature.” That he may be, but I find his sister more compelling. The pathos of the novel lies less in watching Jack try to rehabilitate himself or Boughton try to figure out how he erred as a father than in watching all the characters—and in imagining many of the book’s readers—wonder about Jack, poor tormented Jack, while lovely Glory is neglected, even by her own self. At one point she sees Jack “kneeling to unlace the old man’s shoes. And his father regarding him with such sad tenderness that she wished she could will herself out of existence, herself and every word she had ever said.” Oh, Glory, one wants to tell her, be careful what you wish for.
Well, such is patriarchy, some would quip, with all the precision of calling a diamondback rattlesnake a worm. What this is more than anything else is Christianity. Whether the author thinks so or intends us to think so, I would not presume to say. I have a feeling, however, that Jack thinks so and is not above exploiting the insight.
I would never contest the claim that Jack Boughton is “one of the great characters in recent literature,” but in recent lived experience I have met him coming and going. To the extent that one can glimpse a soul in a mirror, I have met him brushing my teeth.
Jack is a product of Christian culture no less than St. Francis or Christopher Hitchens. It is impossible to imagine him growing in any other soil. We might almost say that he is addicted to redemption. He is addicted to redemption as much as he is addicted to alcohol and inasmuch (Nietzsche might add) as there is any difference. Jack is the lost sheep who has come to realize that being a lost sheep, a repeatedly lost sheep, has several benefits over being found. The love that trumps the ninety-nine who were never lost, for one thing. The rejoicing when you come home, the worry when it seems you might be leaving home, the great chasm of grief you inspire by a failed suicide attempt. When we learn (or rather remember if we have read Gilead) that Jack is married to a “colored woman,” we have to wonder if this is because he fell in love with a colored woman or because he fell in love with the utter impossibility of having anything other than a heavily freighted, heartbreaking marriage with a colored woman in the midst of a racist society.
In as many ways as they differ, in their relation to Glory Jack and his father are much alike, both cloyingly self-conscious, both needy as hell—the father no less than his son. It would seem that the only thing better than being a lost sheep is being a decrepit ram in the tender care of a lachrymose shepherdess. (Though I’ve not taken a tally, it feels as though Glory is in tears on every other page.) The Boughtons are trapped in the drama of love and repentance and forgiveness—big words all, and the greatest of these may be drama. Watching these characters in action, I was led to wonder yet again if it is Dionysian tragedy that lies at the roots of Western culture so much as drama pure and simple. Booze and bullfighting and honky-tonk songs and all five acts of Hamlet. Everything that Zen is not. As I told a friend to whom I recommended the book, the only difference between the alcoholism of Jack and that of his sister and father is that Jack actually drinks.
When at the start of the longer passage I praised above, Glory wakes in “the heat of the day” to a quiet house, I was hoping that Jack had finally hit the road and the old man had gone to his reward. Glory be!—and now at last, I thought, Glory might become. But that was not to be.
Later on, when Jack finally does go, I am holding the door for him. By that time, however, Glory has made up her mind not to go anywhere.
During a tense discussion on the question of predestination (of which Jack is the living embodiment—“the real text was Jack,” Glory thinks to herself early in the story), Reverend Ames makes this protest: “I’m not going to make nonsense of a mystery, just because that’s what people always do when they try to talk about it. Always. And then they think the mystery itself is nonsense.” He is referring to the difficulties of explicating a finer point of doctrine, but his words apply as well to the task of discussing a superior book.
Like any of the knottier tenets of Calvinism, Home is a mystery, right until its last sentence, “The Lord is wonderful,” which the author seems to be daring us to take without irony. She certainly gives us grounds to take it otherwise! In case we miss the point, she does the same thing in choosing her protagonist’s name. The seemingly inglorious resignation of Glory is foreshadowed by something she says, early in the novel, about her growing up: “There was humor in it of a kind that might raise questions about the humorist.” And yet beyond the humor and those questions, Robinson insists on a reality that matters infinitely more—a reality that gives the name of nonsense to so much drama and to so much of what I have said.
Part of this reality has to do with the physical world. That, and the way we make love to that world through physical work. Every meal that Glory prepares has the quality of a sacrament. Jack is happiest and to our eyes noblest when he is repairing a car, digging in a garden. The Edenic symbolism of the latter might actually be an impediment to our understanding. In other words, Robinson’s allusion to Genesis 2 might prevent us from seeing how much she is grounded in Genesis 1, in a vision of the creation as “very good.” The greatest similarity between Gilead and Home is the homage Robinson pays to prairie, sky, and pancakes.
Home is a radically anti-Gnostic novel, not only in its glorification of materiality but also in its implied rejection of the spiritual hierarchism in which a reader of Gilead and an admirer of John Ames might be tempted to indulge. Jack is no less holy in his way than the Rev. Ames is in his; neither is going to a higher heaven than the other. That is an easy line to toss off; it is an amazing thing to have a pair of novels convincingly mean. Robinson leads us to believe that the created existence of the characters is more important than anything else about them. Glory is undoubtedly speaking for the author when she says that she has “no certain notion what a soul is. She supposed it was not a mind or a self. Whatever they are. She supposed it was what the Lord saw when His regard fell upon any of us.” Or what Reverend Boughton sees when his son unlaces his shoes.
Add up the one plus one of the author’s gratis regard for matter and her equally gratis conception of the soul and you’re likely to get the sum of the biological family. About that subject Robinson has this to say in her essay collection The Death of Adam:
I think the biological family is especially compelling to us because it is, in fact, very arbitrary in its composition. . . . And that is the charm and genius of the institution. It implies that help and kindness and loyalty are owed where they are perhaps by no means merited. Owed, that is, even to ourselves. It implies that we are in some few circumstances excused from the degrading need to judge others’ claims on us, excused from the struggle to keep our thumb off the scales of reciprocity.
Surely this is some of what Robinson is trying to convey in Home—a biological family that is for all of its flaws and unresolved dramas a sacrament of redeeming grace.
Perhaps it is Robinson’s profoundly Calvinist sense of the all-sufficiency of Grace, the ultimate irrelevancy of anything we might call merit, that permits her to pull off what amounts to a great artistic miracle: a story unabashedly “about” salvation in which no one “gets saved.” There is nothing in this novel that qualifies as “redemption” of the kind we have come to expect in the 109-page screenplay. No cathartic revelation that leaves the hero better for it, no surprising reversal in which saints are shown to be sinners and sinners saints. Nobody deciding at the last minute not to get on that plane. Yes, Glory has something of an epiphany at the end, but it takes no epiphany on the reader’s part to see the uneasy mix of beatitude and desperation in what she feels. Only a Christian of uncommon mettle could write a novel so untainted by the bastardized tropes of Christian culture. It is as if Robinson told us the Nativity story without once evoking Christmas. In other words, it is as if we were actually—and unremarkably—just there.
“How impossible a thing Christianity is, so deep a wound to man.” That is how Dorothy Day begins her 1968 essay on the Columbian priest-turned-guerilla Camilo Torres. (John Ames’s abolitionist grandfather would have liked Torres a great deal.) The line came to mind repeatedly as I read Home. It was hard not to see these characters as wounded by their religion—especially Jack, but also Glory, whose undemonstrative religiosity is at least as genuine as that of John Ames, but with far fewer consolations. Yet to wish the characters without their wounds—like wishing a world without sin—was almost like wishing them out of existence. We must be careful what we wish for. Another line that came to mind was the subtitle of Christopher Hitchens’s latest book (perhaps because its main title, God Is Not Great, exists in counterpoint to Robinson’s last line: “The Lord is wonderful”): How Religion Poisons Everything. Of course Hitchens is right, and of course he understands nothing.