Gilead, by Marilynn Robinson, Read by Tim Jerome, BBC Audiobooks America, 2004
Generally speaking, were you to describe to me a novel written as a letter written by an aged minister to his young son describing his life, his own minister-father and minister-grandfather, all taking place in middle years of the 1900s, I’d file that novel under “Not Interested.” What tipped me to reading Gilead was a glowing review at The Onion website’s AV Club in their year-end wrap up. While most of that publication’s material is written for the laughs, the AV Club is actually composed of rather intelligent, sensitive critics whose judgments I tend to trust up to a degree.
Marilynn Robinson, like Donna Tartt and Gayl Jones and Shirley Hazzards, has spent some time in between novels. Her debut, the acclaimed Housekeeping, was published in 1981 and between then and now she’s published essays (at least two full books, The Death of Adam and Mother Country). Both novels showcase a kind of gentle observational style, poetic in the same way Robert Frost or Raymond Carver are, common language turned just so, simple statements with a subterranean illumination in their depths.
The novel begins as so:
I told you last night that I might be gone sometime, and you said, Where, and I said, To be with the Good Lord, and you said, Why, and I said, Because I’m old, and you said, I don’t think you’re old. And you put your hand in my hand and you said, You aren’t very old, as if that settled it. I told you you might have a very different life from mine, and from the life you’ve had with me, and that would be a wonderful thing, there are many ways to live a good life. And you said, Mama already told me that. And then you said, Don’t laugh! because you thought I was laughing at you. You reached up and put your fingers on my lips and gave me that look I never in my life saw on any other face besides your mother’s. It’s a kind of furious pride, very passionate and stern. I’m always a little surprised to find my eyebrows unsinged after I’ve suffered one of those looks. I will miss them.
It seems ridiculous to suppose the dead miss anything. If you’re a grown man when you read this—it is my intention for this letter that you will read it then—I’ll have been gone a long time. I’ll know most of what there is to know about being dead, but I’ll probably keep it to myself. That seems to be the way of things.
Gilead is, as remarked above, the story of a 76-year-old minister writing a letter to his seven-year-old son, the product of a lucky second marriage rather late in life. His first marriage ending so tragically so soon, John Ames has had a lonely life, even for a village preacher in the town of Gilead, IA. He opens with reminisces on his father and he travelling, when John was just a boy, out west to Kansas to find the grave of John’s grandfather, a staunch abolitionist and friend of John Brown. The two elder generations of Ames are an interesting example of generational action and reaction, with John’s grandfather toeing a very strict, very militant line of Christianity while his father’s brand of preaching was much gentler, while still quite strict.
Strict is, of course, a relative term, and all three Ames ministers are strict in a decidedly New Testament brand of Christianity, as compared to the more Levitican brand one tends to see nowadays. The grandfather is a good example of someone actually living up to the near impossible strictures the Gospels places on believers — a man literally willing to give up the shirt off his back to someone in need. There is some gentle humor poked at this grandfather for not only that generosity, but his rather free-handed generosity in giving away other people’s shirts or money or food. John Ames’ father, by comparison, strove for a more socially respectable compromise between Jesus’ injunctions and the common law, a theological difference leading to much argument.
The novel is rather remarkably told, with such simple elements as the curious battle over a pair of old stained shirts taking on archetypal elements. The shirts, old rags bequeathed to John’s father from his father after his death, are brought back from Kansas, buried in a sack, then dug up, rinsed, and hung on the washing line by the man. Later, John’s mother yanks them down, washes them completely, presses them, makes them respectable, then reburies them in the same sack.
These past pieces are by way of showing us how John Ames grew to become the man he is and often enough start as though a stray thought while woolgathering in his letter lead him along this path. Robinson is deft in her prose, making the letter’s account as rambling, as self-referential, and as halting and restating the case as letters often are. It is a smoothly written book that reads as if it were the rough draft.
Along his own personal history, Ames lobs some interesting ideas, such as how one can love someone without even being aware that you do, so caught up are you in other distracting feelings for them. Even more intriguing is his reflection on Calvin's statement that we are actors performing a show for God, that perhaps God judges us not morally but aesthetically as a theatre-goer or critic might.
There is a decidedly different kind of action in the present as John writes to his son, worried that he will be supplanted in the house after his death by the son of his best friend, Jack Boughton. Boughton, a nearby minister to a different congregation, has had many children to Ames’ one, and the most beloved just also happens to be, naturally, the prodigal child, a brilliant young man by name of John Ames Boughton. Ames’ young namesake is everything his “uncle” is not, lively, young, daring, insincere, sarcastic, and a fun companion for Ames’ son. John Ames Boughton’s return to town, bringing with him the whispers of why he left in the first place, what does he expect coming back now that his father too is dying, and what does he hope to accomplish here. The resolution to this particular thorn is complex in the good way that real human beings are complex without resorting to any literary tricks or sermonizing morality play.
And that’s the novel’s greatest strength. Despite (ostensibly) being written by a third generation minister, Gilead is a religious book in the best sense, neither judgmental nor scornful, wise and good without the smug hints that none are so good as the author. What comes out most prominently in the book is loving wisdom, the kind of thoughtfulness that is the product of nothing so much as love, not scripture or intellectualism or conventional religious belief, just accepting, warm, embracing love. Ames is a lover of nature, a lover of life, and more importantly one who deeply enjoys both. “There are a thousand thousand reasons to live this life,” he tells his son, “every one of them sufficient.”
Much like most BBC Audiobooks America readers, Tim Jerome is a new voice to me. A Broadway and film veteran, as well as Joe Frank radio show regular, he’s a stellar pick for this book. He is clearly an older man and his voice rings true for the part, the flat Midwestern accent, the amiable musing tone, the acting without seeming to act. It is almost impossible for me to read the words on the page now without in some small way hearing Jerome’s soft but grizzled voice.