Sunday, December 7, 2008

Readings: Homeless

I have finished reading Marilynne Robinson’s excellent novel, Home. I have returned it to the library—gotten it out of the house. It was, to me, a devastatingly sad book. It is hard to write about.

As in her previous novel, Gilead, of which Home is a sequel, various theological threads of Robinson’s Calvinist faith are woven throughout the plot. Of these Protestant doctrines, the question of Predestination figures largely in Home, as do the dynamics of sin vs. grace, justification vs. damnation, and knowledge vs. faith. These questions are largely examined through the tensions of the relationship of Jack Boughton, prodigal son and black sheep, and his moribund father, a retired Presbyterian preacher.

What one first notices in reading Home is Marilynne Robinson’s perfect ear. She knows how a young boy talks; how an old man on the brink of death talks; how a spinster English teacher, and how an American working-class woman in a rural setting talk. We recognize such types, as we have known them, in the words of Home.

The one character who stands out against this perfectly articulated backdrop is the novel’s deeply flawed, perpetually anguished, anti-hero, Jack. His speech is unique, non-typical, out of the ordinary.

Jack is a man with a troubled background, who has lived most of his adult life away from “home.” The mysteries of his past are revealed slowly, bit by bit, in his conversations with his younger sister, Glory, who has also returned home after a less than satisfactory fling at life-in-the-world to care for their aged father, a widower.

Jack is a study in alienation. He is a man who feels himself displaced in any setting. He is an idealist with high principles which he is repeatedly unable to enact; an essentially kind and serious man of learning who self-medicates with alcohol to kill the pain of his inability to be good. For Jack, there is no home.

The last thing we see of Jack in the novel is this:

She went to the porch to watch him walk away down the road. He was too thin and his clothes were weary, weary. There was nothing of youth about him, only the transient vigor of a man acting on a decision he refused to reconsider or regret. No, there might have been some remnant of the old aplomb. Who would bother to be kind to him? A man of sorrows and acquainted with grief, and as one from whom men hide their face. Ah, Jack.

Some of us are, perhaps, unfortunate enough in our own lives also to recognize—even to know—Jack.