Marilynne Robinson opens Jack, the fourth novel of her Gilead series, as a playwright might: dramatic dialogue commences without explanation or context. Jack Boughton, a middle-aged man many readers will know from his appearances in Robinson’s Gilead (2004) and Home (2008), walks a few steps behind a younger woman, escorting her home (in his fashion) from their disastrous dinner date. Gradually the situation becomes clearer: he has disappeared from the restaurant and abandoned her to the check, only to catch up with her now. The woman, Della Hutchins, is furious. She’s a teacher, Jack reminds her; he, a self-described “bum,” is no good for her. As he exits the scene, he promises to leave her alone, but immediately (in the novel) and months later (in the plot) we find them together in another dramatic scene rich with dialogue, this one a seventy-page tour de force set among the tombstones and obelisks of the Bellefontaine Cemetery in St. Louis.
The setting then, is no longer Gilead, Iowa, where most of the action of Robinson’s previous three Gilead novels takes place. (While it is a triple dose of narrative satisfaction to read Jack alongside the others, each stands on its own.) The cemetery scene opens deep into the night. In this most resonant of settings, a reader begins to understand the full extent of Jack and Della’s conflict and their growing attraction. As they spend a long night walking together through the cemetery, their dialogue reveals a great deal, from his philosophical musings (“I suppose entropy should have a nimbus”) to her plain speech (“I have never heard of a white man who got so little good out of being a white man”). In mid-twentieth-century America, this white man and this “colored” woman are in danger simply being in each other’s company, and she is in far more danger than he. That reality becomes the underpinning of their conversations. But as much as Jack and Della reveal themselves in dialogue, it is Jack’s interior monologue—his lively, anguished perceptions—that guides us through the scene and the rest of the novel.
Each of the Gilead novels has a distinctive style and perspective. Jack’s is, for long stretches, the most charming and the most vexing of the four points of view Robinson has employed. His tone is wry and tragic, an astringent combination. He spends a good deal of time contemplating what Camus calls the “one serious philosophical problem”: After his stretches as a petty thief, absconding father, and prison inmate, shouldn’t he just commit suicide? In the cemetery, both Jack and Della allude to Hamlet; we come to understand that, long before he met her, this alcoholic pondered “to be or not to be.” Jack’s deepening love for, and obligations to, Della, are set against the harsh realities of racial bias and unjust laws. Both are the children of Protestant ministers, and while many of their conversations concern the most basic questions of belief, the novel is just as concerned with racial justice and where it coincides with faith. In her intertwined explorations of appalling history and religious, political, and philosophical questions, Robinson resembles no other contemporary American novelist so much as Toni Morrison.