Loads of Learned Lumber

Saturday, July 25, 2015

Marilynne Robinson, _Home_

HOUSEKEEPING IS ON my personal list of Great American Novels, and Gilead is not far behind, so I bought this the week it hit the bookstores...got about 90 pages in and just stopped. It was not doing a thing for me.

With a new Robinson out, I decided, well, really better to finish it, since the new one is set once again in Gilead, Iowa, among the families of a couple of its mainline Protestant clergy.

It turned out to be worth resuming--it's a slow build, even slower than Housekeeping and Gilead (which was part of their appeal for me, ultimately), but it does build.

The events of Home align with one of the plots of Gilead: prodigal Jack Boughton's return after a lengthy absence to his childhood home, an absence that has included alcoholism, prison, and--redeemingly--love and marriage. But his wife is African-American, a fact he cannot quite bring himself to mention to his father or even his sister. He does tell the Rev. John Ames, near the end of Gilead, and it's one of that book's most powerful moments. So, for most of Home, we know something about Jack that his family does not.

This is interesting, but a bit frustrating as well. We want Jack's father and sister to know this about him. We want to see what happens when they learn the truth. But it does not come to pass.

A large part of the reason I bogged down with this novel back in 2008, I suspect, is that the whole novel is narrated from the point of view of Jack's younger sister Glory, and as you might expect from her circumstances (unmarried Midwestern clergyman's daughter in the 1950s) she is an Olympic gold medallist in self-abnegation. As such, even though you keep wanting her to assert herself a bit, or to get Jack and his father to square up and really deal with each other, that sort of thing is just not going to happen.

Since Jack is the prodigal, part of me was wondering whether Glory was going to step into the role of the loyal child, protest the warm reception given the straying child...but Jack's father slays no fatted calves, and Glory has nothing to protest, really. She loves her father, loves her brother, has ended up without not much of a life beyond the two of them...even so, she is not going to force any issue with either of them.

There are people like that. But it's hard to make them fictionally appealing. John Williams's Stoner maybe, Bernanos's Journal d'un Curé de Campagne...it can be done. But Glory never quite gets a chance to step up to the plate, so to speak. Well... she does eventually (and inadvertently) learn that Jack's wife is African-American, and she handles it well, but Jack is long gone, she'll likely never see him again...as I said, this is a bit frustrating.

Still...no denying that the reader does begin to care very much what happens to these characters.  Especially once the dying Rev. Boughton's inhibitions start to crumble, and he starts saying exactly what's on his mind. So the novel succeeds in a few important ways.

Well. On to Lila.

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