At some point on the curve, “eagerly anticipated” gives way to “fat chance”—just ask devotees of Keri Hulme or My Bloody Valentine. Or admirers of Marilynne Robinson’s Housekeeping, a book that inspired intense critical and public adoration when it was published in 1981, and garnered a Pulitzer nomination and a faithful but understandably diminished film adaptation to boot. But then Robinson went on the literary lam: She’s since authored a scathing exposé of a British mega-polluter and a collection of essays on such topics as John Calvin’s intellectual legacy, but no fiction.
Now she’s back with Gilead, a one-sided epistolary novel that ought to have acolytes swooning over her preternaturally intimate prose once again—when they aren’t scratching their heads over the book’s languidly didactic assessment of Christian precepts in practice. The vessel for this examination is a rambling 1956 letter from John Ames, a dying 76-year-old Iowa preacher, to the young son he’ll never see grow into adulthood. The old man’s purpose is to provide the boy with his “begats”—a family history of biblical proportions that stretches from the Civil War to the burgeoning civil rights movement. He introduces his own father and grandfather, also preachers, who split bitterly over the elder Ames’s sometimes violent association with abolitionists (John Brown makes an appearance, suggesting a less psychically fraught Cloudsplitter), and details a youthful quest to find the wayward patriarch’s Kansas grave.
The main attraction isn’t in the parabolic adventures Ames relates, though (lucky thing—even less happens in Gilead than in Housekeeping), but in the breadth and hard-earned wisdom of his observations (“A man can know his father, or his son, and there might still be nothing between them but loyalty and love and mutual incomprehension”). He possesses an agile intellect and an intimidating capacity for mindfulness—a gift, no doubt, of his physical infirmity, but also of a lifetime of writing, reading, and thinking. Indeed, despite the authentic vernacular, Ames’s voice is nearly identical to that of his creator: In a recent interview, Robinson proclaimed that “grace and truth must discipline thought,” a line she might’ve cribbed from the reverend—or vice versa.
At times, then, Gilead seems to be little more than another of its author’s Calvinist tracts (or one of Ames’s sermons), and the book occasionally gets bogged down in dry scriptural analysis at the expense of narrative (“How you would honor someone differs with circumstances, so you can only truly fulfill a general obligation to show honor in specific cases of mutual intimacy and understanding”). But, given the stridency of the times, Robinson’s well-reasoned scrutiny of faith in action is more audacious than pedantic, and it’s difficult to imagine a less sanctimonious writer. Ames’s beliefs, rationalizations, and preoccupations accumulate to express, with rare fullness and grace, nothing less than the divine riddle of existence.