John Ames, a seventy-six-year-old pastor in Gilead, Iowa, is dying of heart disease. So that his seven-year-old son will know him after his death, he is composing a volume of his "begats": an account of his heritage which stretches beyond genealogy and history to include ruminations, instructions, meditations, and exultations on the mysteries of our earthly existence.
Gilead is Robinson's second novel. Her first, Housekeeping, was published in 1980 and has since acquired a large following of academic and nonacademic readers alike. Housekeeping is a great novel of wild and serene originality. It affirms the unique human soul and "all things counter, original, spare, strange," as Gerard Manley Hopkins has it. The story of two young girls whose mother drives a borrowed car into a lake, thereby abandoning them to fancily caretakers each more peculiar than the last, Housekeeping studies the infinite variety of sorrows and joys that can follow in the wake of catastrophe. Populated almost entirely by females, the novel has been rightly celebrated as a girl's sublime coming-of-age story, its questioning of modem culture and rationalism unsettling, necessary, universal.
No wonder this new novel has been so anticipated. It is not, however, as if Robinson's writerly interests have been lying fallow. In the years since Housekeeping, she has published literary articles and reviews; a number of eloquent and insistent essays defending religious belief in the modern age (subsequently collected in The Death of Adam); and an exposé of environmental damage caused by an English nuclear plant. Her concerns are wide-ranging, her intellectual precision a sharp challenge in these days when, as she says, so many of us read commentaries on great thinkers, rather than the great thinkers themselves, and have ceded our interests to specialists.
Robinson's new title sends us back to Jeremiah's lament: "Is there no balm in Gilead? / Is there no physician there?" and to the reply the old African-American spiritual makes, "There is a balm in Gilead / To make the wounded whole." Sin-sick souls and the injuries that our legacy of slavery has inflicted are two of John Ames's central concerns as he grapples with his family's history and his present state of illness.
His storytelling is circuitous, deliberate. Like the language of Housekeeping, this novel's narrative strikes a fine balance between the exterior and interior worlds of its narrator, its prose both meticulous and sensuous, delighted in its own sounds and cadences. The pace is slow; it requires a reader, particularly through the first half of the novel, to enter the prose as if entering a lengthy church service. (Ames tells his son, "For me writing has always felt like praying.")
This is the account of a soul's struggle to be gracious in the face of death and jealousy. He tells the story of his bombastic grandfather's alliance with John Brown and the bloodiest of abolitionists; of his father's response, pacifism; and of the psychological rift caused by their opposing world views. These explorations of the past are indeed crucial to the story of the present, laying a philosophical frame as they explore the political and psychological uses to which religion has been put. Religion, Ames says, is a "wound in the flesh of human life" and he freely acknowledges the pain caused by religious self-righteousness: "It seems to me," he says, "there is less meanness in atheism, by a good measure."
Ames and his father and his grandfather have all been ministers, Calvinists who have interpreted the Bible so differently—and antagonistically—that the dying Ames feels compelled to make his peace with the fallible humans his father and grandfather were. The portrait of the fierce grandfather, who as a teenage boy in Maine has a vision of a chain-bound Christ and who will later, to cover John Brown's retreat, wound a soldier and leave him suffering in the desert, is alternately terrifying and funny. (John Ames is a droll commentator, whether he is remembering his grandfather stealing clothes off the line or critiquing a bean salad as "distinctly Presbyterian.") His father, reacting to the grandfather's militaristic displays, worships with the Quakers during the First World War, but will journey through his own desert to bury the old man. Through much of the novel, John Ames's response to these forefathers is as much intellectual and literary as it is emotional: in order to understand them, he has conversations with Feuerbach, with Bernanos (who gave us another diary of a religious man), with Donne. He reads Scripture and Calvin and invokes them both. He contemplates the history of Midwestern abolitionism and radicalism, troubled by the divisions and confrontations of a nation as well as those of a family.
Still, it is one thing to understand the forebears and another to act the patriarch. If the dying Ames sees the conflict between father and grandfather clearly enough, he must still confront his own anger toward his namesake and godson, a surrogate child offered to him after the death of his first wife and child. John Ames Boughton, son of his lifelong friend and fellow preacher, comes to town looking for forgiveness and hope from his godfather and meets instead derision and dismay. In the unfolding of their confrontations, the narrative gathers considerable power, of both the narrative and religious varieties. All the novel's intellectual concerns are distilled into the two men's face-to-face encounters and into their attempts to make themselves understood and forgiven.
Throughout Gilead, Robinson manages that trickiest of fictional aspirations, the portrayal of souls straggling to achieve selflessness. John Ames and his graceful wife and son inhabit this novel with dignity, their story plausible even in its utter goodness. If grace, as John Ames says, is an "ecstatic fire that takes things down to essentials," then Gilead, in its deliberate and generous telling, achieves narrative grace.