Jack: A Novel
By Dan Clendenin
Marilynne Robinson, Jack: A Novel (New York: Farrar, Straus, and Giroux, 2020), 309pp.
Marilynne Robinson’s latest novel continues her series of four books about several families from the fictional town of Gilead, Iowa, in post-World War II America. Jack was preceded by Gilead (2004), which won a Pulitzer Prize and was named the #1 fiction book of 2004 by the New York Times, Home (2008), and Lila (2014).
The story explores a sub-plot that appeared in Home, when, without explanation, the black sheep of the family, Jack Boughton, returned home after a twenty year absence. Jack is forty-three, an admittedly “confirmed, inveterate bum,” an alcoholic, a petty thief who has spent time in prison, a miscreant who fathered a child out of wedlock, and, worst of all for his loving father, a decided non-believer.
But what happens to Jack when he falls in love with the beautiful Della Miles? In some ways they are similar. They are both the children of pastors (Presbyterian and Methodist), and they share a love of poetry. Both of them are also working through how to relate to their respective families. On the other hand, they are radically different. Della is eminently respectable and responsible. She’s a high school English teacher, a sort of goody two shoes. She describes herself as having been “a perfect Christian lady” her entire life, which life she intends to continue. She comes from what Jack calls “the most respectable family on this round earth.” She is also “colored,” the jarring anachronism that Robinson uses from this period seventy years ago. Jack and Della’s love is not just transgressive, it was also illegal for their time and place. Their romance allows Robinson to explore the themes of race, class, family, and religion.
Jack remains haunted by his father’s love, whereas Della feels smothered by hers. There’s even a suggestion of inner rage in her, even though she professes every intention of fidelity to her faith and family. When her family meets the prodigal Jack, their perfect Christianity is revealed as very imperfect. Can this love survive so many complexities? On the last page Jack savors the irony: “This was his grandest larceny by far, this sly theft of happiness from the very clutches of prohibition.” In Pauline language, it is nothing less than grace abounding to the chief of sinners.
Dan Clendenin: email@example.com
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