Small-town America does not enjoy the pride of place it once did in American fiction, when spinning yarns about the sleepy environs and predictable residents of semirural life seemed a preferable artistic choice to recounting the frenetic and angst-driven existence of urban dwellers forever on the brink of catastrophe. Storylines and characters these days rarely develop in bucolic settings like that which Harper Lee once described in To Kill A Mockingbird: “There was no hurry, for there was nowhere to go, nothing to buy and no money to buy it with.”
The appearance of Marilynne Robinson’s bestselling novel Gilead in 2004 was a compelling return to such locales of so much American storytelling, places where family, tradition and religion intersect with characters’ lives in profound ways. Robinson won the 2005 Pulitzer Prize for Gilead, her second novel, which presented in almost diary form the ruminations and memories of John Ames, an aged Congregationalist pastor living out his final days in the small town of Gilead, Iowa. There he faces a failing heart and decides to put his thoughts to paper for the benefit of his wife and 7-year-old son, who brought unexpected joy to his old age.
The sleepy town of Gilead is also the setting of Home, Robinson’s follow-up effort published this fall. While the Ames family returns in this novel (which takes place in roughly the same time frame as Gilead), the main focus is the household of Ames’s lifelong friend and fellow pastor, the retired Presbyterian minister Robert Boughton. A widower for a decade and now facing the indignities of failing health (sound familiar?), Boughton needs the help of his far-flung family to manage his daily affairs, and his loyal 38-year-old daughter Glory surrenders her independence to return to Gilead and care for him. She finds Gilead a humdrum town and her childhood home a garish museum of knick-knacks, and harbors some resentment toward her many siblings for allowing her to be the only one to care for their father, but gracefully fulfills her new role as caretaker in his final months.
Trouble comes to this quotidian existence with the appearance on the back porch of a well-worn man in a well-worn suit: Jack Boughton, Robert Boughton’s troubled son, “the black sheep, the ne’er-do-well, unremarkable in photographs,” who has been gone for two decades after scandalizing his family and the town but has always remained his father’s greatest concern in life. Could Boughton have saved Jack from his own demons? Can he save him now? Or will Jack disappear into the night once again, leaving his father heartbroken on his deathbed?
Over the course of the novel one discovers that while Jack, an alcoholic thief with a long history of jail time, has many secrets (including a mystery lover in St. Louis), he is not the only Boughton with a checkered past. Glory, too, has a closet of some significant skeletons, and both try to keep from their increasingly feeble paterfamilias any information that might cause him further heartache. Meanwhile, Jack’s struggles with his personal demons parallel his and his father’s awkward attempts to reconnect and understand each other. Jack seeks his father’s forgiveness, understanding only slowly that they have such radically different mental approaches to the universe that more often than not they simply speak past one another. Even watching the evening news becomes an emotionally precarious enterprise for the family, and both men suffer unexpected setbacks during their extended, fumbling reunion. Glory suffers as well, recognizing only late that she has fallen for her “old illusion that she could help her father with the grief Jack caused, the grief Jack was, when it was as far beyond her power to soothe or to mitigate as the betrayal of Judas Iscariot.”
Robinson’s prose is almost poetic when she describes the hearth and home—the smells and taste of homemade cooking, the earthy joys of gardening, the way light and heat shine through the windows of a home worn out from harboring the joys and sorrows of five decades of family life. Like Gilead before it, Home also unfolds at a leisurely pace that allows appreciation of even the smallest of these details, forsaking action and tension for the languid unfolding of multiple lives and complex human realities.
However, Gilead it is not. One of Gilead’s charms was how thoroughly Robinson probed Ames’s personality, which over the course of that first-person novel was presented in such candid language and profound insight that the author seemed to have channeled the internal life of an elderly pastor. In Home, however, Jack comes across as less of a full-fledged character than his godfather and namesake; perhaps Robinson wanted to present him as an unfolding mystery? The same is true of Boughton, whose internal longings and misgivings are expressed less through exposition or dialogue than through the lens of Glory’s external observations. He seems to spend most of the book being helped to his bed and propped up at the dinner table, muttering the oddly cryptic phrase in between.
These limiting factors are in part the inevitable consequence of choosing one particular voice and point of view, of course, but they also result in a novel somehow less emotionally satisfying than Gilead. We do not know the heart of Glory, Boughton or Jack; and even Ames’s periodic appearances force the reader to guess at the motives for his sometimes surprising actions.
In Home, Robinson explores many of the themes that made Gilead a powerful work of art, including the interweaving of faith and doubt in the lives of deeply religious people and the admixture of pride and worry that confronts someone facing death. For readers seeking a return to these weighty tropes couched in the evocative sketches at which Robinson excels, Home has much to offer, though it is less rewarding than her earlier tale of another pastor’s family down the street.