Small town story
Marilynne Robinson, FSG, 2004
If I had to choose a vocation in literature, I would not choose that of the ‘good man’. If that is your role, you are faced with two options: 1) suffer terribly and, preferably, die (the Christ model), 2) bore the pants off your readers, normally acting as a foil to more complex characters (the Alyosha Karamazov model). Readers are very rarely saints ourselves, and we identify more readily with flawed characters.
So it is a testament to Marilynne Robinson’s skill that she is able to sell us a protagonist whose struggles are, for the most part, internal and not make this read like a philosophy student’s LiveJournal. Robinson’s narrator, a pastor named John Ames, has tended his flock in Gilead, Iowa for several decades. The reader joins him as he is approaching the end of his life, struck down by an undefined illness and soon to leave behind a younger wife and an infant son. The novel takes the form of a letter to his son—really a fragmentary series of narratives—which jumps ably between the present day and Ames’s childhood and later life.
The third in a line of ministers, Ames writes a fair amount about his father and grandfather, a larger-than-life character whose eccentricities would be unbelievable but for the time in which he was living. The world outside Gilead (and occasionally Kansas) does not intrude much upon the Ames story. The Civil War looms large, but we do not witness its events so much as the ripples in the American psyche which arose from it: questions of what it means to be human, and how to treat others humanely.
In a novel whose worldly goings-on are largely pretty unremarkable, Robinson is able to create tension and mystery. We learn of Ames’s discomfort at the return of an old friend’s son, and we share in that unease when this man befriends and charms the pastor’s wife and child. And this is where Ames’s flaws become apparent; flaws which give depth to his essential goodness. He is drawn occasionally, from his sense of fairness and love of humanity, to think uncharitable thoughts. These are small fry, of course, compared with the deeds of some protagonists, but they are given magnitude by the standards Ames sets himself.
In my last review I looked at Dmitri Shostakovich, a man who did his best in unpropitious times. I am perhaps too kindly disposed towards the protagonists of novels I read, but I suspect I am not alone in this. In all novels the reader enters into a contract with the narrator: tell me a story, we say, and I won’t judge you too harshly. To smooth this contract, a good author will help the reader understand the narrator’s motivations. It is impossible not to be touched by the tenderness Ames feels for the son he will never see grow up, or the guilt he feels for burdening his wife Lila both with his presence and his approaching absence.
But Lila, we feel, is ultimately blessed to have known and loved John; as he is blessed to have known her. Of all the things to feel guilty about, the novel tells us, love surely cannot be one of them. We know this, deep down, but sometimes it takes a good person to remind us.