Robinson's literary balm is soothing, after 23 years


by Marilynne Robinson. Farrar, Straus and Giroux. 247 pages. $23.


Sometimes we get the book we need. Was that what Marilynne Robinson had in mind all the time, why she waited 23 years after her splendid debut novel, Housekeeping, to grace us with this, her second? Did she anticipate this moment of religious chauvinism, this era when the God who gets all the publicity is the one selected as front man for hostility, violence, bigotry and perfect games thrown by the home team pitcher?

That is not the God revered by John Ames, the dying minister of a church in the prairie town of Gilead, Iowa, and the narrator of Robinson's epistolary novel. His God is warm, embracing and inclusive, a God who instills not fear but virtue. Who knew?


While Ames' piety might threaten fiction of a treacly sort, Robinson's penetrating, earnest intelligence never veers there. Certainly, Gilead is ruminative and concerned with faith, but her John Ames is soulful and good-humored, his story layered and rich (even without conventional plot devices). Absorbing and contemplatively moving, Gilead works a salvelike magic. Literary novels rarely deliver serenity (or aspire to it), yet that is Robinson's consequential achievement with Gilead.

The novel is in the form of a letter Ames is writing in 1956 to his 7-year old son to be read years down the road. At 76, Ames suffers from heart failure and wants to leave to the boy the legacy of what is in his heart and his memory.

Though he is dying, these are the best days of John's life, the result of an unexpected and content late marriage (after the death years before of a first wife in childbirth.) But John has the wisdom to recognize that happiness always is twinned with sorrow. "I do not remember grief and loneliness, so much as I do peace and comfort," he writes, "grief, but never without comfort; loneliness, but never without peace."

Even at this stage, John yearns to fix his sense of what it means to live a faithful life, to forgive, to master one's darker impulses. In so doing, he retells his family history, notably giving consideration to his great-grandfather, a fiery preacher abolitionist in combustible Kansas before the Civil War, a zealot whose actions John finds hard to square with a righteous life even as he sympathizes with the cause. And, slowly, John also reveals the nature of his complex relationship with the troubled, volatile adult son of his oldest friend.

Robinson's prose is clear, gentle and forthright, and her perceptions about language arresting. At one point, John marvels about the use people make of the word "just" to express a degree of intensity, "purity or lavishness" in their impressions. To demonstrate an extra measure of appreciation, he observes to his son, they will say, the sun just shone or the tree just glistened.

"I regret that I must deprive myself of it," he writes in anticipation of his death.

The regret, of course, reflects the joyfulness of John's appreciation of living. It is a lovely thought, just lovely.