Gilead: Faith, Fathers, and The Nature of Things

Cover of Gilead

Cover of Gilead

I developed a love-hate relationship with Marilynne Robinson’s Gilead after about 150 pages. One the one hand, the first 100 pages were like reading Flannery O’Connor “southern wisdom.” It’s not necessarily bad, but it grates on me quickly and I really just grow to despise the style as the book marches along. On the other hand, around page 150 the story really took off and became one of the most intriguing novels I have read all year.

Here’s a confession: a lot of how I feel about novels is based upon their inherent re-readability. This will almost certainly sound haughty, but I don’t like the idea of getting everything there is to get about a novel in a single read. Generally, the fact that people seem to never revisit the novels they’ve read, even the ones they love, is strange to me, and I attribute it to a sort of readers-laziness. Everyone has a go to movie to watch when they’re sick (Ahem, Jurassic Park), or a show they just put on as background noise (Ahem, How I Met Your Mother or That 70s Show), yet when it comes to books one read is generally seen as enough. So here’s an issue with Gilead, while I am certain I didn’t grasp it all and that a second read would do me some good, I simply do not know if I could stomach the first 120 pages again. I was wondering if I was going to have to put the book down before the complexity of the relationship between John Ames and Jack Boughton comes to the forefront and powerfully sweeps the reader away.

Gilead is a first person narrative written under the guise of John Ames, a pastor in Gilead, Iowa,  who has recently been told by his doctor he has only a few months to live. Ames sets down to write down all the things he would have told his young son as his son aged, but now will not be able to due to his heart condition. He begins the novel by doing just this, telling his son about his own father and grandfather, about their complex relationship full of fights and estrangement from one another, and about regrets he has, both concerning that he will not be there for his own son, and that he and parents and brother have grown apart. Layered within these little narratives are John Ames’ personal views about life and the nature of things. While some are interesting, some are hokey and southern-wisdom-like. Perhaps that is the nature of what Robinson is doing, creating a fully focused John Ames in the first half of the novel, who is genuinely just passing down fatherly information to the child he will leave behind. However, I cannot fully endorse such an idea, as the character of John Ames is absolutely fascinating. I loved him and his approach to life and the majority of his views on Christianity. He reads Feuerbach, talks Karl Barth, discusses the limits of rationalism and so-called proofs for God. Honestly, what is not to find interesting about that? Thus, to find the first part of the book so unappealing seems to me to be a frustration with the author, not the character.

My, oh my, though, how this novel sprints to its finish. The second half of it was anything but a struggle to get through. I devoured it. This is primarily because Ames shifts his focus, accidentally in all odds, to the return of Jack Boughton, his oldest friend’s eldest child. Jack Boughton’s real name is John Ames Boughton, and he is named for John due to his friend Boughton (we are never given a first name) feeling that John will never re-marry and have a child. Jack, however, truly seeps through the page off of the words that Ames describes him with. Ames explicitly tells his son that he is not to trust Jack Boughton. Yet he is at least cordial with the man, as he is nearing the end of his life. Jack is constantly around, desperate for conversation with Ames; a conversation that seems impossible to be had because both men talk past one another at every point.

Finally Ames lets his reader in on the secret history of Jack Boughton, why he doesn’t trust Jack even slightly, why he can never forgive him. This blog is spoiler free, however.

Deviating even further from his intended purpose of writing to his son, John Ames is goes over sermons that he had stored away in the attic that his wife is now going through and leaving around the house for him to find. While Ames seems to be unable to forgive Jack for what he did, his wife leaves him a sermon he had written a few years previous on the nature of forgiveness; namely that the reason for forgiveness of debt is the existence of debt itself. Ames meditates upon his own writing but fails to make a connection to Jack Boughton. This is common as the book hurdles towards its conclusion.

The novel morphs into Ames writing down every moment of conversation he has with Jack Boughton and the necessity of forgiveness and the nature of grace. Truly, the trick Gilead performs is the parable of the prodigal son. The moral becoming not that the prodigal son is redeemed is his returning home, but that the prodigal son returns home to redeem those around him, remaining himself a stranger and a scapegoat.

Gilead is a complicated novel that left me full of mixed emotions after I finished, including heartbreak and sorrow. After starting so slow it packs a mighty punch to the gut and a great intellectual stimulation. At least once, one must suffer through the first half to experience the exquisite second half the work brings.

Recommended to: Those who enjoy a literary novel that explores the nature of belief, and those who want to read a novel that writes supremely the relationship between a father and son.

Avoid as if it is talking extremely loudly in the library I am sitting in currently with no regard for the feelings of others: Those who simply cannot tolerate “southern-wisdom” novels for even a moment. As I stated, the novel makes a turn and becomes pure art, but until that moment, if you’re like me, it is difficult to endure.

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