Holy roller

Marilynne Robinson’s Home
By DANA KLETTER  |  September 9, 2008

GLORY: Robinson’s novel reads like a powerful, unresolved hymn.

Home | By Marilynne Robinson | Farrar, Straus and Giroux | 336 pages | $25
Marilynne Robinson’s Home is haunted. It’s a novel filled with allusions to and echoes of scripture, parable, and psalm. But a restless discomfort unsettles what might be serene. It’s a hymn left unresolved, the final chord dissonant rather than reconciled.

The novel returns to the characters and the mid-’50s Iowa town depicted in Robinson’s 2004 Pulitzer-winning novel, Gilead. There is an African-American spiritual that assures us that in Gilead, we will find a balm that makes whole a fragmented “sin-sick soul.” Jack Boughton, 41, is the sin-sick soul returning after a 20-year absence to the house where his father is dying. Jack’s sister Glory is already there — 38 years old, lonely and fearful, returned in secret disgrace, having been deceived by her fiancé. Jack is a charming bounder, the perfect prodigal, favored, then fallen into ruin: a self-confessed thief, gambler, and drunk. “Come home,” goes the refrain of a favorite family hymn — home, the retreat of weary sinners. But at home Jack is troubled by the past and hopeless about the future. His father, a Presbyterian minister, declares him forgiven. Glory offers sympathy and camaraderie. Jack finds no solace or pardon.

Like Luke’s Prodigal Son, Jack sets himself to toil as his father’s hired man, pruning the overgrown gardens and restoring the DeSoto languishing in the barn. Sister and brother develop a tenuous understanding, a renewed love and delight in each other’s company. They struggle to comfort their father in his last days, but both grieve for lost loves, and the old man is an agitated presence. Disinhibited by illness, he confronts Jack with his failings, then retreats, fearful he will drive his son away again.

The Biblical “balm in Gilead” was not a salve; it was a question the broken-hearted prophet Jeremiah voiced as the Babylonians bore down on Jerusalem, a prayer for mercy as he heard the lamentations of his “poor people” on the eve of their enslavement: “Is there no balm in Gilead?” Haunting the heart of Home, as it did Gilead, are questions about mercy and sin, questions posed against the specter of slavery in America.

Jack has been living in the Jim Crow South, a witness. ( “Gilead” means “mound of witness” in Hebrew.) And he’s fallen in love with a black woman. When the Boughtons watch the news together as firehoses and dogs are turned on marchers in Alabama, Jack’s “Jesus Christ!” evokes a rebuke from his father. Reverend Boughton resists the moral imperative of the civil-rights movement. He cites the Apostle Paul in his argument against the chaos of the protests in Alabama, “Let all things be done decently and in order.” Even scripture can be used to sanction what is profane. The unspoken tensions in the house increase.

Although Home invokes the Prodigal Son, Glory goes to Isaiah, to what some Christians take as a verse foretelling that Jesus will be a “man of sorrows,” an eternal stranger. As Jack and Glory fumble toward understanding, their conversations inevitably end in “forgive me,” and “I’m sorry.” Each apology is distinctive, like the various inversions of a chord.

Robinson’s novel can be read as a family story about love and death, about shame and forgiveness, but it is also a meditation on the American concept of a Christian life. It is a magnificent hymn, a sacred song that bears its readers to a glorious place. But you don’t have to be righteous or holy to ride this train.

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  Topics: Books , Jesus Christ, Marilynne Robinson
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