In 1956, Reverend John Ames, an old minister dying of heart disease, begins a letter to his young son, a very long letter that day by day will fill the pages of a journal. "For me writing has always felt like praying," Ames tells his son as he warms to the task before him: to leave a document that will bear witness to his life, an account that may compensate in some small measure for his absence during his son's childhood. It's a seemingly casual equation Ames makes between writing and prayer; a natural one, easy to dismiss as self-evident, if not banal, and it is based on the discipline common to both undertakings: a necessarily meditative state of mind; the requirement of isolation, focus, and even a certain purity of intent. Apart from this, it's expected that a father will pray for his son's future, hope for his happiness, sympathize in advance of the sorrows that will visit him, and, in the case of Ames, confess his failure to provide for his child financially, leaving his widow with responsibilities he fears she will be unable to meet.
But this letteróthis novelóis a prayer in ways that are more profound and unusual than a father's benediction. Through Ames, Marilynne Robinson reveals the intense, at times unbearable beauty of an ordinary human life. Regardless of her religious faith, or lack thereof, Robinson's is a vision readers may be tempted to call celestial: It excludes nothing from the possibility of holiness; routinely, its embrace of the human condition is ecstatic. Gilead is Robinson's second novel, and takes its name from the Iowa town where Ames was born. It is the same town where he will soon die and be buried, in what he imagines will be his "last wild gesture of love." Housekeeping and the twenty-three years that have passed since that novel's publication have laid a significant weight of expectation on Robinson. Gilead bears up with the easy, unself-conscious grace of a work innocent of any claim except that bestowed by talent.
Ames is the son of a preacher and the grandson of a radical abolitionist who answered his vision of Christ bound in chains by joining the Union army as a chaplain and helping to smuggle slaves out of the South. As Ames tells the story of his forebears, he slowly pieces together details of an unpunished if not unsolved murder that took place during a raid by military police on the Underground Railroad and in which Ames's volatile grandfather was implicated. Against this historical background of racism and punishment, a new intrigue unfolds, another tangle of betrayal and culpability, this one involving Ames himself, who discloses it, slowly, by way of memories and conversations reported throughout this rambling account of his life. As a reader might expect of an elderly person, Ames introduces a topic only to digress when interrupted by a meal, a guest, or even the arrival of a competing thought; but the novel's disarming discursiveness is a measure of Robinson's control over her material. Ames always circles back to add new layers of significance, telling several stories at once without confusing the reader or dropping a story long enough to try his or her patience.
The narrative is propelled mostly by the contemporary conflict, which begins with the arrival in town of Jack Boughton, the prodigal son of Reverend Ames's dearest friend. Old Boughton, as the minister calls his friend, was once himself a preacher, and is the man who baptized Ames's child from his first marriage, to his childhood sweetheart, Louisa. Ames was away from home when Louisa went into premature labor and, with their baby, died. "I held her for a few minutes," Ames writes of his infant daughter, "and that
was a blessing."
Blessing is not a word Ames invokes casually. In fact, the idea of blessing is at the heart of Gilead, both as a powerful act and as an avenue toward consciousness: the active engagement with the recipient of one's blessing, an engagement at once joyful and excruciating because of its dual recognition of existence and mortality. As one of a group of "pious children from pious households," Ames once baptized a litter of kittensóa childish impulse, perhaps, but a genuine one, with a weight of meaning that remains at the end of his life. Holding his hand on the heads of the animals "with the pure intention of blessing," Ames, even as a boy, understood the transaction as a holy one. The act of blessing, Reverend Ames writes, "doesn't enhance sacredness, but it acknowledges it, and there is a power in that . . . feeling its mysterious life and your own mysterious life at the same time."
The younger Boughton's arrival in the town of Gilead is prompted by his father's rapidly failing health, though any eleventh-hour reconciliation will involve not Old Boughton but Reverend Ames. Neither understands this, at least not at first, yet it is Ames's blessing that the younger Boughton seeks, a sacrament for which each man must prepare himselfóAmes to give, Boughton to receive.
The two are bound before God already. When young Boughton was born, his father made Ames the boy's godfather, and the name he gave the baby was John Ames Boughtonónot that he hoped to compensate for the death of Ames's daughter (how could he?), but to acknowledge the loss his friend had suffered and invite him to share in his own good fortune. To the sorrow of both father and godfather, however, Jack was, from early youth, a troubled and destructive boy. At first inclined to mischief "only bordering on harm," in his teens he graduated to robbery and vandalism, a juvenile delinquent whose crimes were never punished because of the respect the community had for his father.
Ames has long nurtured the conceit that his inability to forgive Jack Boughton his sins proceeds from his loyalty to Jack's father. But what is truer is that when Jack left town it was for a transgression that disgusted and hurt Ames as it never could have Old Boughton. When in college, Jack impregnated and abandoned a girl who was not only underage but "very young" and whose "family situation was desolate, even squalid." Having lost a wife and child, Ames judges his godson harshly for what he can't help regarding as a failure to protect, or even admit, the sanctity of life. Worse, now that Ames is at the end of his days, his distrust of Jack is exaggerated to the point that he suspects his godson of intending to take his place as husband and father once he is no longer there.
Far from representing a threat, though, Jack's appearance is the arrival of God's grace, a last opportunity for Ames to admit his prejudice, to understand the grave limitations and high costs of human judgment, and to make his way toward not just forgiving but embracing Jack. Blessing him. Acknowledging his mysterious and sacred existence. Ames, about to lose the world around him, has fallen in love with the astonishing fact of existenceó"the most remarkable thing that could ever be imagined." His consciousness of his surroundings has been made so keen by the approach of death that it leaves the old minister in a state approaching ecstasy. "I really can't tell what's beautiful anymore," he writes, and this is because everything he sees shines with loveliness.
It's the triumph of Gilead that the words of an old preacher dying in an obscure midwestern town can take on the weight they do. No matter the reader's religious impulse, no matter if he doesn't have any, whether Ames will be able to forgive and love his enemy becomes an outcome of critical importance. But why? Why is the grip of moral dilemma so strong?
"I feel sometimes as if I were a child who opens its eyes on the world once and sees amazing things it will never know any names for and then has to close its eyes again," Ames writes in an effort to articulate his discovery of beauty, his awe at creation and his place in it. Gilead is an entirely character-driven novel, relying on readers' almost instant alignment with Ames, the appeal of whose voiceóhis essenceóis hard to overstate. A preacher whose purpose has been to question rather than to provide answers, Reverend Ames is continually filled with wonderment at the world in which he finds himself. "It has been my whole life," he writes to his son of his vocation, and the simple statement rings with significance and authenticity. These same qualities place Robinson in the company of those very few writers who are all substance, uncorrupted by style. Anatole Broyard's New York Times review of Housekeeping praised Robinson for her "close, careful fondness for people that we thought only saints felt." How deeply gratifying it is to find that, after twenty-three years, she hasn't changed a bit.
Kathryn Harrison's novel Envy is scheduled to be published by Random House in June.