"Jack" | Reviewed by Bill Schwab
Title character John Ames Boughton is one of the more interesting characters in "Jack," the latest of Marilynne Robinson's Gilead novels.
Jack, the favorite of the Reverend Robert Boughton’s eight children, has escaped the small, quiet town of Gilead, Iowa for the bustling, mixed-race city of St. Louis shortly after World War II.
The recalcitrant preacher's kid is a compulsive drinker, thief, and wanderer who passes most of his days hanging out in the Black section of the city where he is known as "That white man that keeps walking up and down the street all the time."
Jack spends many of his days hanging around the Mississippi riverfront under the Eads Bridge and many of his nights sleeping in Bellefontaine Cemetery, so he can rent out his flat and have a little money in his pocket. Having served two years in prison for a crime he did not commit, he still lives only one step ahead of the law.
A constant source of embarrassment and angst to his father, Jack refers to himself as disreputable, a fool, confirmed bum, and " the rotter that I am." However, the reader soon learns that he is not only a drifter; Jack also is funny, perceptive, and so smart that phrases from the Bible and Shakespeare are effortlessly intertwined in his conversations.
Raised as a Calvinist, Jack feels guilty about his dishonorable behavior and how it has hurt his family and friends. In a late-night conversation, locked in the cemetery with his companion Della, he discovers "a new aspiration, harmlessness."
As he later confesses, "I am aware instantly and almost obsessively of anything fragile, with the thought that I must and will break it. This has been true of me my whole life . … Yet now I aspire to utter harmlessness " he explains. "It's a contest I have with myself. I have no real aptitude for harmlessness, which makes it interesting," he admits. "I isolate myself as a way of limiting the harm I can do."
Della is "a preacher's daughter, a high school teacher, a young woman with excellent prospects in life," who is Black. In segregated Missouri, her relationship with Jack is illegal, socially unacceptable and utterly dangerous.
The son of White Presbyterian minister Boughton and the daughter of Black Methodist Bishop Miles seek to make their alliance harmless to everyone. But the miscegenation laws and Jack's poor character and moral history continually wear down the couple's relationship.
The tensions this mixed-race courtship presents to them and how they try to address them are most engaging. Della's father, brothers and sister all individually tell Jack to leave Della alone. Yet boundaries established by law and the mores of the Miles family cannot dissuade their attraction to one another.
Jack and Della's impossible love affair becomes the essence of the novel's drama, mystery and heartache. "Jack" flows quickly with the author's simple, spare writing which gives no hint of how the story ends. Even though this is the fourth Gilead novel, the reader need not know anything about the previous books to become engrossed in this episode that ponders the powers of guilt, love and forgiveness.
Each of the Gilead novels describe the impasses in United States history including the continuing vestiges of the Civil War and the impact of deeply held religious beliefs. Robinson's novels examine our national character and explore our tightly held sacred values.