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The final word of Marilynne Robinson’s novel JACK is “grace,” and it’s a fitting one to describe this gentle story of redemption that plays out in the context of an interracial romance in late 1940s St. Louis. Though it’s very much of its time, Robinson’s novel also offers a useful mirror in which to view the racial conflicts of our own day. But above all, it marks a welcome return to the territory Robinson first began exploring in her Pulitzer Prize-winning novel GILEAD.

Readers familiar with that novel and its two companions, HOME and LILA, will recognize JACK’s protagonist --- John Ames (“Jack”) Boughton, the son of a Presbyterian minister who names his son after his Congregationalist colleague and best friend in that small Iowa town. In a chance encounter, when he gallantly helps her retrieve some scattered papers and offers his umbrella (she’s unaware of the irony when she calls him “Reverend), Jack meets a Black high school English teacher, herself the daughter of a prominent Methodist minister from Memphis, launching the two into an episodic, often fraught, romance, that “just wouldn’t stay ended.”

JACK is an almost perfect exemplar of what Robinson called, in a recent New Yorker profile, her style of “cosmic realism, a patient chronicling of the astonishing nature of existence,” and, despite its conventional surface, she takes a considerable risk, almost from the first page.

"JACK is not some facile morality play. Robinson is too serious a writer and thinker, as she has revealed in her other Gilead novels and in her nonfiction essays, to offer anything less than wisdom of the most hard-won variety, all of which is well worth pondering."

The novel opens with a brief scene in the unhappy aftermath of Jack and Della’s first date, when he flees their dinner to avoid debt collectors, leaving her with the bill. After that awkward beginning, one in which Della tells Jack, “I have never heard of a white man who got so little good out of being a white man,” the next scene --- fully one quarter of the novel’s length --- unfolds in an eloquent and beautifully observant extended conversation between Della and Jack during a long night when they are stranded behind the locked gates of St. Louis’ Bellefontaine Cemetery. Placing ultimate trust in the reader’s patience, Robinson slowly sketches her characters --- Jack a compulsive thief who refers to himself as the “Prince of Darkness,” and Della, a “perfect Christian lady,” as she thinks of herself, whose life is a paradigm of order and rectitude.

Apart from this unique mode of authorial revelation, Robinson skillfully uses the conversation to explore weighty topics like predestination, sin and the end of the world. Their dialogue is astute and lively, illustrated in Della’s sharp assessment of Jack’s dubious character:

“I think most people feel a difference between their real lives and the lives they have in the world. But they ignore their souls, or hide them, so they can keep things together, keep an ordinary life together. You don’t do that. In your own way, you’re kind of --- pure.”

And throughout this lengthy scene, Robinson’s prose is precise and evocative, as when Jack reflects that “however deep it was, the darkness in a leafy place took on a cast, a tincture, of green.” He continues: “The air smelled green, of course, so the shading he thought he saw in the darkness might have been suggested by that wistfulness the breeze brought with it, earth so briefly not earth.”

Jack and Della’s romance is a rocky one, slowly, often furtively, ripening in a hostile environment where interracial relationships like theirs are still criminalized and where segregation is so rigidly enforced that both Jack’s and Della’s ventures into neighborhoods on the opposite side of the color line are occasions for suspicion, if not outright danger. Added to that are the vigorous objections of Della’s family --- its patriarch an adherent of Marcus Garvey’s separatist philosophy --- to her relationship with a ne’er-do-well white man.

But the central motif of the novel is Jack’s struggle to escape his dissolute life, one marked by a propensity for petty criminality and the sense of utter unworthiness that provokes. He wrestles with his conscience in a dreary rooming house and wanders the streets of St. Louis in his shabby clothes, supporting himself with menial jobs in a failing shoe store, and, as a dance instructor, his subsistence income supplemented by periodic surreptitious cash infusions from one of his brothers.

“You are living like someone who has died already,” Della observes in their cemetery conversation, but Robinson is intent on scraping away the surface layer of almost reflexive transgression that has dogged Jack’s life to reveal the moral core beneath. He’s a sensitive man, someone with artistic and musical talent who’s fond of poetry, and who seeks a “vocation of harmlessness.” Della is able to penetrate to the heart of being of this atheist, this self-styled Prince of Darkness, and to understand him almost better than he understands himself. But JACK is not some facile morality play. Robinson is too serious a writer and thinker, as she has revealed in her other Gilead novels and in her nonfiction essays, to offer anything less than wisdom of the most hard-won variety, all of which is well worth pondering.

Reviewed by Harvey Freedenberg on October 2, 2020

by Marilynne Robinson

  • Publication Date: April 6, 2021
  • Genres: Fiction
  • Paperback: 320 pages
  • Publisher: Picador
  • ISBN-10: 1250832918
  • ISBN-13: 9781250832917