There is something about Marilynne Robinson’s writing that cuts to the core of human nature. Her words are careful and thoughtful and she nails humanity and what it is to be human beings, especially humans in relationship with one another.
In Jack, Robinsons explores the character of John Ames Boughton. Jack is a continuation of the story and world that began with Robinson’s Pulitzer Prize-winning Gilead. In Gilead we meet John Ames, an elderly preacher, reflecting on his life and what wisdom he has learned and can pass on to his young son. One of the thorns of his history is the son of his closest friend, also a preacher, named after him. This is Jack. In Home, we meet Jack’s youngest sister, Glory, returned home to the town of Gilead to live with her father. In Lila we get a closer look at John Ames’ younger wife, her history and then the friendship she strikes up with Jack after he arrives in Gilead. And now, finally, we get close to Jack himself. In many ways, Jack is the driving force in all three previous books. He seems to be the fly in everyone’s ointment. He is the son that no one knows what to do with, the godson that others secretly resent, the brother that is loved and despaired over. The prodigal who knows the world in a way that many others do not.
Jack follows Jack’s life in St. Louis and the time period in which he meets Della Miles and their lives become entwined together. Readers of the previous three novels will know of Della and where this relationship is going. In many ways, Jack and Della have a lot in common. They are both the children of preachers, men of integrity who expect their children to live their lives in certain ways. They both love poetry, they both look for beauty all around them. But their lives, when they meet, are on very different trajectories. Della is a school teacher, living away from her family but still under their watchful eye. Jack is newly released from prison, too estranged from his family to feel like he can ever return home.
But more than any of those other things, the greatest divide between Jack and Della is that Jack is white and Della is Black and this is St. Louis in the 1950s. Their relationship is actually illegal. There are restaurants they cannot visit together, buses they cannot ride together on. Though Della is by far more respectable than Jack, aspersions are cast on her when seen in his company simply because she is a Black woman.
A lot of this remains largely unspoken within the novel itself. If you are new to Robinson’s writing then Jack is not the place to begin. There is a lot about Jack and his character and his history that is not laid out within this book and could be confusing to a new reader. Jack as we see him in this single book does not seem so terrible; certainly his estrangement from his own family (who he recognizes as loving and supported) seems unjustified by the man we meet here. And, for the modern reader, an interracial relationship will not be shocking or aberrant. If, however, you have been introduced to Jack in Robinson’s previous books then we have seen the way his actions have hurt those around him, the way resentment has built up in his home community.
Judging Jack as part of the whole series, my main problem here was that I struggled to see why Della was drawn to Jack at all and certainly not to the extent that she was ready to sacrifice so much. At best, Jack is a sort of genteel hobo. He lives in a rundown rooming house. He casually steals. Della finds him sleeping on park benches and in cemeteries. He struggles to stay sober. He is constantly hounded by debt collectors. While we as readers become privy to Jack’s inner thoughts and the internal compass that still guides him, Della doesn’t know this. Robinson does an excellent job of showing us a smart, committed young woman. But perhaps she makes Della too respectable because I kept wanting Della to save herself. Which, in fact, is really what Jack wants too, even as he can’t quite keep himself away from here.
Jack is a worthy addition to Robinson’s fictional world. It feels right that we finally get to really know this character and what he thinks of himself and the world around him. I always found him to be a sympathetic personage, even through the perspective of others, but as we see him here he is even more heartbreaking. I wanted the best for him, just as his father and siblings do, but it’s almost impossible to say what is best for John Ames Boughton.
If Robinson continues to write books in the world of Gilead, the next one I would love to see would be a book focusing on Della and her personal story. Even while her motivations were hard for me to understand, Robinson excelled at building this relationship. The conversations and their actions, from the largest to the smallest, felt so real and authentic. Marilynne Robinson knows human nature.