Jack: A Novel
The fourth book in Marilynne Robinson’s Gilead cycle features Jack Boughton, the prodigal son of the Presbyterian minister, Robert Boughton. In the first books, Jack is an all-around ne’er-do-well and occasional thief, who ends up leaving town in disgrace after impregnating a farm girl.
This new novel follows Jack to St. Louis, Missouri where almost two decades later, shortly after World War II, he lives an impoverished life alone in a boarding house supported solely by monthly checks from his brother. His father always attributed his son’s waywardness to “heavyheartedness.” In this novel, now privy to Jack’s thoughts, we learn his father was right: sadness and shame are his life-long companions.
Jack considers himself “trouble.” Even when he doesn’t mean to hurt people, he does it anyway. He has resolved to steer clear of humanity so he won’t inadvertently harm anyone. The novel opens with Jack wandering through a cemetery and meeting up with Della Miles, a Black schoolteacher, who is also the child of a minister, albeit a Methodist one.
Della has remained in the cemetery past dark unaware that the gates are locked each night. Trapped together on the grounds until morning, Jack and Della spend their time, and the next 50+ pages, discussing everything from predestination to Hamlet to the end of the world. It would be dangerous for them to be caught together, so the next morning Jack diverts the guard’s attention while Della slips back out through the now open gate. By the end of the long night, they are both a little in love, having enjoyed a gentile, wide-ranging, heartfelt conversation rendered exquisitely by Robinson.
Sadly given the anti-miscegenation laws in place at the time, every meeting after the first idyllic one in the cemetery proves fraught. Della’s father, a Methodist Bishop in Memphis, sends various emissaries from the family who attempt to rescue Della from the star-crossed love affair, to no avail. Even though her feelings may cost her everything, Della seems determined to move forward.
At first, it’s not entirely clear why. What does she see in Jack, who everyone else views as gaunt, disheveled, depressed, and decades older than she is? Late in the novel she explains, “once in a lifetime, maybe, you look at a stranger and see a soul, a glorious presence out of place in the world. And if you love God, every choice is made for you. . . . And a soul has no earthly qualities, no history among the things of this world, no guilt or injury or failure.”
Though Jack knows he is “trouble,” one wonders whether he comprehends how much trouble he might cause Della. In short—her life.
The relationship is beautifully developed, and Robinson carefully unpacks the particular struggles of interracial relationships in mid 20th century America, but she stops short of confronting the very real threat of physical violence that would have challenged them both, especially Della. For the most part, the threats in this novel remain theoretical; uttered, but benign.
Robinson makes it clear that neither Della nor Jack think highly of these appalling societal restrictions, but the truth is only one of them is in mortal danger. For that reason, Jack’s ruminations about his own “troubled” nature sometimes fall flat. Love alone would not have conquered the racial problems in St. Louis in the 1940s, and though Robinson is one of our greatest contemporary prose writers, Jack’s story feels inconsequential compared to Della’s plight. After all, Jack has chosen to remove himself from society; when he “chooses” he can return to Gilead. Della has been segregated against her will from birth.
Racism provides Robinson with fertile ground for a discussion of predestination and grace, but grace has yet to save Black people from discrimination, nor their neighborhoods from white developers. Grace may have saved Jack, but one also ends up questioning, vis a vis the obvious contrast between being born white versus Black during that period (and even today), who is conveying grace and who is denying it, and who is the one doling it out in such inadequate, arbitrary thimblefuls?
The book ends with the notion that loyalty and love are a type of grace—a small one perhaps, but one that does offer some comfort from the storm.