Home: A Novel
Farrar, Straus and Giroux, 2008
336 pp., $25.00
Reviewed by Linda McCullough Moore
Marilynne Robinson at Large Again
What do you give a woman whose treatise on the plutonium content of the Irish Sea can put your family off eating fish in Wales for life? A woman who makes you feel you're missing something if you don't read John Calvin every morning before breakfast, or rethink Darwin, or sleep with your shoes on and maybe hop the occasional freight train, perhaps compose a 250-page letter to your small son.
I say give that woman pen and paper. Then stand back. Or better yet, approach, but with some caution. She will lull and woo you, and before you know it you are out in the middle of the night with your oddest aunt shivering in a leaky boat in very scary water, and not long after, setting fire to the curtains in the parlor, the last word in housekeeping. Housekeeping, Marilynne Robinson's first novel, a book that warned us not to be surprised if one day she wrote books like Gilead and now her latest, Home. To read Marilynne Robinson is to enter into an agreement. I say be careful what you sign. Read the small print. Her characters can move into your living room, take up residence in silences and shadows, their triumphs and discomforts come unbidden at the oddest times. Her thoughts can make camp in your mind.
Pastor Tim Keller says you need a God you can disagree with. I think we need writers we can disagree with. Writers with positions and attitudes—yea, attitude—and dare, I say it, beliefs (oh dear!). And if Robinson's beliefs are not always my own, they help me to consider just what mine might be and why, and give a free home demonstration of definition playing out across a lifetime, blessing its bearer and the souls life brings to him.
For all of her conviction, Robinson is not a desperate writer. She doesn't over-describe or explain or try to convince you of anything. Gertrude Stein said she wrote for herself and for strangers. I think Marilynne Robinson writes for herself. Every worthy writer does, write for that self, that stranger, familiarly strange. She tells her story—it's all any writer has to tell—but because it's true, there is a place inside of it for us. A story about everybody is a story about no one. She makes you think that, happy or not, every family is different. And so, every family is just like yours.
But you'll be wanting now to know about the plot of this new novel. A man, Jack Boughton, comes home—yes, to Gilead—to his father and his sister, Glory, after twenty silent years away. He gardens, fixes the car, visits the neighbors, and goes to church a couple times. Then goes away again.
And if this Jack Boughton is the Prodigal, he's one whose father slaughters not the fattened calf, but any hope of lasting ease. The Prodigal whose older brother traveled six times to St Louis to search the sorry streets for him. But Robinson would have Jack be more Lazarus than Prodigal, Lazarus "with the memory of cerements about him," no matter he is washed and shaved, his hair slicked down, dressed up in a suit he has dry-cleaned with dabs of gasoline. Lazarus who wishes they'd all stop studying him, stop falling silent when he walks into the room. He's Lazarus, not Saul or Paul, not Simon Peter, not even Thomas. His story isn't from the Gospels or the Book of Acts so much as it is from an older testament.
He's Abraham—he's told—abandoning his Ishmael; he's Caleb and Joshua still thinking things possible even after forty years of wandering in the desert. He is David, his sin ever before him, still, man after God's own heart, rehearsing questions about the sins of the fathers being visited on sons. Jack is Jonah telling God: I fled because I feared your mercy; he's Moses, stuttering: God, Please! Pick somebody else. He is Joseph, father-favorite, given a coat of many colors woven out of expectations—that he be happy, happier perhaps than his father ever managed to be. If there is a balm in Gilead, the relationship of this brother Jack with this sister Glory, and in the end with Reverend Ames, would suggest the balm to be a thing as rarefied and fine as friendly feeling,that friend-love that does not need you to be successful, or remarkable, or particularly serene. His sister: young Miriam. His godfather: Elijah, telling Elisha it's God who runs the blessing department.
It's all been told before. But that's the point. The story's old. All stories are. We do not read for that. We read to know just what we are to make of the stories we already know. We read to ask how are we, knowing what we know, expected to get out of bed tomorrow morning. To stay alive till then. Some days to flourish.
Robinson can be a gentle writer, soothing even, but always in the service of an enterprise that in another hand might have us in the stock and pillory. She's come to talk of things that matter, let us not pretend. Mercy, grace. Truth and wisdom. And sorrow for our sin. Sin, perhaps defined as our intention to believe our substitutes will see us through. And yet, and yet, I show you a better way. In this writer's hands, good people can be good with fear of neither masquerade nor tedium. Her saints are kind as they are intelligent. A dying father says his anticipation of the prayers of gratitude and rejoicing he would pray on the day his prodigal came home gave him joy for twenty years. Robinson's men—yes, men—refuse ironic immolation with a soft-spoken, pleasing ease. (I want to use the word old-fashioned, though I know full well that goodness never was in vogue. True courtesy, hard to abide.) And here, rogues and villains practice righteousness, refuse to lie. Robinson writes of a redemption that redeems our dogged compromise, our tawdry imitations.