Marilynne Robinson’s “Jack”

October 25th, 2020  |  Published in October 2020

Opinions vary wildly about the writer Marilynne Robinson.  I generally find her to be commandingly brilliant, one of America’s leading Christian theologians and most exciting novelists.  Her novel “Gilead” won the Pulitzer Prize some years ago, and she completes her series of four novels about life in Gilead and its inhabitants, beginning with the friendship between two ageing Protestant ministers, one of whom has remarried late in life after his first wife has died, and has a small child, Jack, by this second marriage, and Rev. Ames’ letters to this young son pervade the very beautiful “Gilead”, arguably the best of the four in the “Gilead” series. “Home” (the return of the prodigal son, beautifully rendered)  was followed by “Lila”, the story of  Rev. Ames’ second wife’s own history, and Robinson concludes this series with her newest novel, “Jack”, about Rev. Ames’ son, now fully grown and somewhat of an outlaw from contemporary American life. “Jack” is the weakest and most problematic of the four novels, something of a disappointment.  I sometimes wonder, with great writers such as Robinson and Joyce Carol Oates, if their editors are too starstruck by these writers to edit their writing more conclusively, as both these writers’ novels are sometimes too long (“Jack” certainly is, and it’s endlessly repetitive, often downright boring, and veers into the pompous and seems preachy, perhaps the ideal word for a woman writing about ministers and their wives and offspring).

Jack seems to have been born an outsider (sometimes blamed upon his breech birth, a rather offensive idea); perhaps he’s more his mother Lila’s son than his father John Ames’s; I’m not certain that the characters in the Gilead series are particularly well connected from book to book.  “Jack” begins with a much too long meeting of Jack and his future love Della, who’s a Negro (to use the language of the times, which seems to be right after WWII, in St. Louis), in a white cemetery, where Della’s not supposed to be because of her color; she’s come bearing flowers for a prominent dead citizen for whom her mother once worked; Jack’s hiding in the cemetery as a homeless man. The presumption is that the cemetery’s locked, and  Della couldn’t find the exit by nightfall, so these two spend the night together (chastely), talking about Very Big Questions, in a conversation that seems stilted, way too long, odd, and perhaps, from Robinson’s point of view, otherworldly, given the location. That the reader is supposed to believe that Della, a very proper schoolteacher in a superb high school for Black students, falls instantly in love with Jack, is a real leap of faith, and one of the greatest weaknesses of this overblown novel. It’s simply not credible, and is a plot device Robinson creates so that Jack and Della will both become outsiders, as the laws of Missouri (and most other states) did not allow marriage between the races at that time.

Jack’ s admittedly a liar, a petty thief, who’s just out of prison for a crime he didn’t commit (stealing stuff from pawn shop). Jack’s not returned to Gilead, Iowa, in decades; he’s missed his own mother’ s funeral, though he certainly happily takes the regular financial subsidies from both his father and from one of his brothers , making his moral stances on finding the capitalist system of America a tad problematic.   Robinson well delineates the Jack who has no material needs or goals, and Jack represents, to me, a very large  number of Americans who really don’t fit into the laissez-faire corporate greed capitalism that’ s so failed so many Americans since the l980s. But Della has fit in, as best she can given her race in the l940s and l950s; both have minister fathers, though  Della’s is a bishop in Memphis, a leader of a Black separatist movement there. If you’re able to skip the almost preposterous idea that Della falls in love with Jack’s “soul” (her claim) immediately, much of the novel’s a  meditation on concepts such as loyalty, belonging (or not); Jack will spend some time in a Black church, where he’ s most welcomed, but his ongoing conversations with this church’s minister are ignored; the minister advises him to leave Della alone. Much flowery language about a variety of Protestant concepts are thrown about in these conversations, which go on too long and are very repetitive (Jack does try people’s patience). Jack does wander in and get a real job here and there; he lives in a low end boarding house.  Della’ s love and loyalty to Jack rather bring him back to the land of the living (as opposed to living in a cemetery with the dead, I suppose), though Della’s roommate, and all her family reject Jack and want him gone. Jack’s a big talker, and his extravagant language is presumed to come from being his father , the minister’s son, but one could just as easily say that Jack’s language is that of a con man.  Nor does the reader need to go through virtually every member of Della’s family, each of whom is unfailingly polite to Jack, but each of whom rejects him equally: we get the point.

Much has been made in reviews about the racial circumstances working against Jack and Della, but this is hardly new territory in 2020, a year rich in new fiction by many a debut Black novelist. I found it awfully decent of Jack’s brother and father to continue to support Jack, but there’s something very whiny about Jack, I’m sorry to say, in spite of his occasional flights of beautiful language and ideas: he may be the American adolescent who’s never grown up, and is enabled by his family to live on the margins, but he’s not down and out the way true homeless people are. This is a great conflict Robinson’s created, and it’s never resolved.  Although the reader will, on many occasions, understand that Della will leave her family (she’s disowned)  and go off (into the wilderness?) with Jack, the reader will constantly wonder why on earth she does so, and that’s the great conflict of this often dull, tendentious, occasionally brilliant novel, a disappointment overall.  We hope Robinson moves away, now, from this “Gilead” group of novels, as they’ve got nowhere else to go, and I’m not sure “Jack” adds much to the series, anyway.

–Daniel Brown

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