Whispered in Your Ear, A Moral Man’s Good Word

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

It would be difficult to pinpoint exactly when Christianity began its 20th-century nose-dive, but certainly it lost a great deal of its shine when it hooked up with television. The call to Jesus became less a turn toward goodness and more a sort of never-ending telethon where you could phone in your pledge in the middle of the night. The lamb and the shepherd, that business about loving your neighbor as yourself-it all seemed to be hopelessly outdated in the face of the modern evangelists. Marilynne Robinson gives a nod to all that is to come towards the end of her marvelous new novel, Gilead, when her preacher/narrator, John Ames, speaking from the vantage point of the 1950’s, says, “Two or three of the ladies had pronounced views on points of doctrine, particularly sin and damnation, which they never learned from me. I blame the radio for sowing a good deal of confusion where theology is concerned. And television is worse. You can spend forty years teaching people to be awake to the fact of mystery and then some fellow with no more theological sense than a jackrabbit gets himself a radio ministry and all your work is forgotten. I do wonder where it will end.”

It’s a welcome bonus that this novel, full of all sorts of secular literary merits, throws such a warm and intelligent light on the nature of faith. If Christianity can be seen as a table that has been painted, varnished, wallpapered and shellacked 50 times in the last 50 years, then Marilynne Robinson is the writer who manages to scrape every bit of the superfluous junk away. We’re left to behold the nature of simplicity. It’s the stark unabashedness with which all forms of love are presented and praised-love of life, of family, of God and of country-that makes this quiet novel feel so radical. In the same way that it’s always easier to write about an unhappy marriage than it is a happy one, it’s certainly easier to write a book about a man who is at odds with his faith than it is a man who is at peace in the world. Discord is the locomotion that drives fiction forward, but Ms. Robinson has forsaken murder and infidelity for peace in the valley.

This is not to say that John Ames is a man without his troubles. For one thing, he’s dying. At the end of his 76th year, his heart is failing, and the doctor has told him that soon enough his time will be over. Ames, like his father and grandfather before him, is a minister in the small Iowan town of Gilead. Late in life, he fell in love with a much younger woman, and they had a son who is now 7. The book is written as a long letter to this boy in hopes that it will grant him a well-rounded memory of his father. Despite the construct, the novel feels more conversational than epistolary. “I am trying to make the best of our situation. That is, I’m trying to tell you things I might never have thought to tell you if I had brought you up myself, father and son, in the usual companionable way.”

John Ames is a great communicator. He speaks his mind and seems to have no trouble getting his thoughts onto paper. Before he took to writing this letter, there was a lifetime of sermons: “Say, fifty sermons a year for forty-five years, not counting funerals and so on, of which there have been a great many. Two thousand two hundred and fifty. If they average thirty pages, that’s sixty-seven thousand five hundred pages. Can that be right? I guess it is. I write in a small hand, too, as you know by now. Say three hundred pages make a volume. Then I’ve written two hundred twenty-five books, which puts me up there with Augustine and Calvin for quantity. That’s amazing. I wrote almost all of it in the deepest hope and conviction. Sifting my thoughts and choosing my words. Trying to say what is true. And I’ll tell you, frankly, that was wonderful.”

It is not without irony that the hero of this story is so effortlessly prolific while the author has had a harder time of it. Ms. Robinson, who made an indelible mark on contemporary American literature with her first novel, Housekeeping, took 23 years before delivering this second novel (though two books of nonfiction, Mother Country: Britain, the Welfare State and Nuclear Pollution, and The Death of Adam: Essays on Modern Thought were published in the interim). So to say that Gilead was a long-awaited follow-up doesn’t even begin to get at it. There are people who have been re-reading Housekeeping (I’m one of them) for a long time now. Twenty-three years later, the new novel is as quiet as the first, though not nearly so isolated or quirky. The dying preacher, addressing the adult he imagines his boy will grow up to be, creates a feeling so intimate the words are all but whispered in our ear. The book, especially in the first half, is more or less a discourse on the unimaginable wonders of life. Each moment that’s presented-the child in the sprinkler, the family at dinner, the garden, a quiet moment alone in church-is so full of tenderness that one calls to mind the scene of Emily’s birthday in Our Town. The world is so beautiful it is nearly unbearable to witness.

Into the calm facts of a life winding down, bits of plot are interjected to form a narrative. The stories of Ames’ pacifist father and abolitionist grandfather connect the narrator firmly to the past, all the way back to the days of the Civil War. The present-time struggles involve the neighbors, yet another connection of father to son. While there was a deep, intertwining bond between John Ames, his father and his grandfather, the space between Ames and his son feels more like a continental divide, the split between the past and what will be the future. Ames, who is both an old man and an old-fashioned man, will die, taking both his probity and his past with him. It’s hard to imagine that without him, his son will someday become a minister himself. The only torch he’ll have to guide his way will be this book, this long love letter. “In eternity,” his father writes, “this world will be Troy, I believe, and all that has passed here will be the epic of the universe, the ballad they sing in the streets. Because I don’t imagine any reality putting this one in the shade entirely, and I think piety here forbids me to try.”

Gilead is a book that deserves to be read slowly, thoughtfully and repeatedly. If Marilynne Robinson takes her time writing a third novel, I imagine that this one could easily be savored for 23 years to come. I would like to see copies of it dropped onto pews across our country, where it could sit among the Bibles and hymnals and collection envelopes. It would be a good reminder of what it means to lead a noble and moral life-and, for that matter, what it means to write a truly great novel.

Ann Patchett is the author of four novels. Her most recent book is Truth and Beauty: A Friendship (HarperCollins).

Whispered in Your Ear, A Moral Man’s Good Word