What We Talk About When We Talk About Grace: A Review of Jack

October 13, 2020
Title: Jack: A Novel
Author: Marilynne Robinson
Publisher: Farrar, Straus and Giroux
Publishing Date: September 29, 2020
Pages: 320 (Hardcover)
ISBN: 978-0374279301

There are a handful of locations in literature which have been so richly loved to even be described as adored: Yoknapatawpha, Port William, Avonlea, Castle Rock. These places, so richly rendered by their creators, are more than mere placeholders for events but are themselves real characters with histories, hidden secrets, and incomplete virtues. Over the course of four novels, Marilynne Robinson has given the world the palimpsest of Gilead, Iowa, upon which we have seen the slow drama of the Ames and the Boughtons play out. In the first volume, Gilead, we were given the beloved figure of John Ames, the aging minister writing letters to his young son, an apologia for his life that he hopes his son will read after he has died. With the next visit to Gilead, Home, we enter into the house of Ames’ lifelong friend and fellow minister, Robert Boughton, seeing the world and events of Gilead through the eyes of Bougton’s daughter, Glory. In Lila, we return to the house of John Ames, only now learning the world through the history of his young wife, Lila. And now, with Jack, we hear the story of what John Ames Boughton was doing between his flight from Gilead as a young man and his return at the beginning of Home.

The temptation in reading these novels is to make Gilead into a kind of false Eden. The town of Gilead is, for all of its pastoral rendering, no oasis from the vicissitudes of history, but driven and shaped by these forces without ever naming them. Glory’s poverty brings with it the Dust Bowl legacies of the Midwest; Ames’ reticence to speak of racism, is tied into his own family’s legacy with abolition. The town of Gilead is not unique in this, in that the past is both that which has shaped us into what we are, and as such cannot be disavowed. The black church cannot be unburned, its congregation unable to be gathered back from the diaspora, Jack’s illegitimate child unable to be raised from the dead. The past lives on in the shape of who we are, and we cannot have it otherwise.

The difficulty here is that we have a propensity to read the past that has shaped us in a way which fails to rightly remember our history, and in the process, keeps us from seeing ourselves rightly. Thus far in the Gilead cycle, we have had second-hand access to Jack, reading him through the struggles of other characters to love and forgive the prodigal son. The town of Gilead, in many ways, has required Jack Boughton to be the prodigal, the surd to Ames’ pastoral virtue, the youngest son always forgiven, the question of original sin embodied, the object lesson of the sermon. But as we finally hear from Jack firsthand, the question is opened up: what if Jack wasn’t meant to simply be an object of pity, but a parable for the town? What if Jack is meant to be a salvation for Gilead as much as Gilead seeks to be part of Jack’s salvation?

In previous novels, we have encountered Jack as the prodigal son coming home to Gilead, having left in shame after impregnating a local teenager, but we have only known in bits and pieces what Jack’s story has been beyond Gilead. The story for Jack takes place mostly in St. Louis, where Jack has settled following a brief stint in prison for theft. There, we meet Jack Boughton and Della Miles, the children of preachers, at the onset of their relationship, strolling around in a graveyard that they have been inadvertently locked into for the evening, a metaphor for both the gloom and the romance to come. Della knows little at that time, and will largely remain ignorant of Jack’s past in Gilead, but Jack Boughton—the prodigal, the question of original sin embodied—is still Jack Boughton. His old ways are being set aside as he courts Della, but old habits of selfishness, drunkenness, and pride die hard.

Della’s story with Jack mirrors what we know of him already from previous novels: Jack’s story is one of an inability to accept the grace given to him, and with it an inability to forgive himself. It is clear that Jack is a man fully aware of his own darkness, but not to the extent that he is incapable of reaching for the grace offered to him by Della. Jack knows that the way of grace is one of great difficulty. Staying with Della means a loss of all that has made her Della, but leaving her in safety means that Jack will move toward his healing alone, or worse, returning to Gilead as forever the irreligious prodigal. Jack has been struck by a great love which threatens to tear open his darkness, not by having it removed, but by having someone join him in that darkness he cannot understand.

When we have seen Jack before now, it is easy to depict him as the handsome devil, but here, we see Jack outside the safety of Gilead: unkempt, frequently drunk, unshaven, sleeping in barren flophouses. Della is drawn to him not in spite of his delinquent ways, but because of them. We see Della with every opportunity to seek other suitors; Della is an educated black woman with a bright future, a good job, and positive standing within her community. But it will be Jack or none at all—she is pure grace, a Beatrice drawing Dante out of Hell. Their courtship is a tragic one, with Jack and Della navigating a society divided by race and class, drawn together by providence. Despite objections from her family, community, and church, Jack and Della enter into a relationship we already know will be one of difficulty, fleeing both Gilead and Memphis, neither in Eden nor Egypt.

It is here that Jack functions to open up the previous stories of Gilead, for the characters of the previous novels love Jack even when they do not understand him. What we realize in the end of Jack is that when John Ames Boughton returns to Gilead, when we see him in sorrow in Home and Gilead, he is not one purely in search of grace, but one who has already encountered grace and still cannot comprehend it. Jack has encountered the grace of God in a way alien to Gilead—in the form of the black church, the black community, of Della—and it is this grace which the town, for all its piety and virtue, has never learned to embrace. In Home, we find the elder Boughton speaking disparagingly of the Civil Rights Movement in Birmingham. In Gilead, we hear of the black community whose church was burned and whose congregation moved to Chicago, and of Ames feeling uncomfortable to enter into the struggles of the Civil Rights Movement because of his own family history. When Jack, in both novels, refers to Iowa as the “bright start of radicalism”, it is a biting critique, because Jack has experienced a more complex embrace of grace, and in a form for which Gilead has no comfortable room—the black community. The prodigal returns to Gilead, bearing stories of God’s grace in the blackness of Memphis and St. Louis, and Gilead does not yet have the ears to hear it.

In the end, none of this means that the town of Gilead is false or hypocritical, but that it is the perfect hometown for someone who knows both the joys of ample grace and the difficulty of letting more grace in. Gilead is a town that knows great virtue, yet is blind to the wounds that have shaped it into the kind of town it is. Gilead is also a town that will continue to receive the loving hand of God to repent and change, to receive healing in a form that it cannot comprehend, and in doing so, to be able to see its past as a felix culpa, broken steps rewritten by God into a saga of grace and redemption. Because Jack is a novel that takes place before 2004’s Gilead, we already know the story of Jack and Della remains a mystery. But it is the pervasive, unyielding, disquieting grace of God that gives this reviewer hope that their story will be one of healing, not only for Jack, but for Gilead itself.

About the Author
  • Myles Werntz is Director of Baptist Studies and Associate Professor of Theology at Abilene Christian University, where he directs the Baptist Studies Center in the Graduate School of Theology. He is the author and editor of five books in theology and ethics, and writes broadly on Christian ethics of war and peace, immigration, ecclesiology, and discipleship.

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