Home and A Good Man Is Hard to Find.

My latest top 50 ranking for this year’s Rule 4 Draft is up. I’ll also be back on College Baseball Live this Thursday night at 7 pm EDT and on the postgame show as well.

The old man nodded. “Maybe I’m finding out I’m not such a good man as I thought I was. Now that I don’t have the strength – patience takes a lot out of you. Hope, too.”
Jack said, “I think hope is the worst thing in the world. I really do. It makes a fool of you while it lasts. And then when it’s gone, it’s like there’s nothing left of you at all. Except–” he shrugged and laughed “–what you can’t be rid of.”

She’s only written three books, but Marilynne Robinson has to be in any discussion of the best living American novelists, and there is no living writer whose prose I’d rather read. Saying a writer writes “from the heart” can be like saying a player “sees the ball well,” but Robinson produces some of the most moving, heartfelt scenes and passages I’ve ever seen and does so without the excess of sentiment or cloying language that could turn a book with a similar setup into mass-market chick lit.

Home, currently on sale for $10 through that amazon link, is the parallel novel to Robinson’s Pulitzer Prize-winning novel Gilead. (It’s worth mentioning that Robinson’s three novels have each won a major award – Housekeeping won the PEN/Faulkner award for the best debut novel of its year and Home won the Orange Prize for the best English novel written by a female author.) Gilead was a series of notes or journal entries from an older priest named Ames who, nearing his death, wishes to leave a testament for his young son. That journal also showed scenes of his complex relationship with his friend and fellow preacher Robert Boughton and Boughton’s prodigal son Jack, named for Ames, who returns to Gilead after a twenty-year absence. That return is the subject of Home, as Jack, a lifelong alcoholic who didn’t even come back for his mother’s funeral, shows up carrying two decades’ worth of secrets and memories, with arguably four decades’ worth of loneliness and sorry as well. His timing is propitious, with his father’s health declining even more rapidly than Ames’, and Jack’s sister, Glory, living at home again after a disastrous courtship that has left her resigned to spinsterhood.

Despite the presence of just three characters for most of the book, with everyone else accounting for maybe 10% of the dialogue and whatever passes for action in a Robinson novel (she has never in three books resorted to plot twists or other tricks of the trade to spice up the story), Home is Robinson’s most complex work. The developing relationship between Jack and Glory, separated by enough years that they were never close as children, is one side of a highway where the other direction contains the gradual yet accelerating deterioration of the relationship between Jack and the dying father who has confused decades of worry over his wayward son with decades of love; it’s not clear that anyone was or is capable of helping Jack, who has what would today most likely be diagnosed as depression, but Boughton, already starting to lose control of his emotions in the earliest stages of dementia, faces the crushing disappointment of seeing the failure and tragedy of Jack’s life incarnate, in his kitchen or his living room. And yet Jack, first welcomed and then rebuked by his own father, draws closer to the old man and to his sister … but never so close that he can make the place he refers to as “home” his actual home, instead revisiting the childhood feeling that he wished he lived there in spirit rather than simply in body.

That dualism symbolizes one of Robinson’s central themes, the gulf between our spiritual selves (or souls) and our corporeal existence. Robinson writes honestly of religion, or more specifically of religiosity, as her many religious characters are neither caricatured nor placed on pedestals; religion is simply intrinsic to their lives, and Home is suffused with conflicts between religious tenets and human behavior, as well as the doubts that have plagued Jack for his entire life, further isolating him (although it was far from the main reason) from a family of believers.

And part of Robinson’s gift is that she can write about religion without creating an overtly religious novel. Home is very much about life on earth, about the weight of memories, about choices gone awry in the distant past with ramifications in the present day. Glory’s broken engagement has left her back at home, unemployed, and without romantic prospects; one of the most heart-rending scenes comes near the book’s end as she remembers her own daydreams about her own future family, about children that will probably never exist, a warmth and happiness that she feels is now permanently denied to her. (I don’t believe the characters’ ages are mentioned, but Glory is probably in her early 30s, and I suppose in a small Midwestern town in the 1950s this would make her marriage prospects fairly slim.) Jack, meanwhile, slowly exposes layers of his sorrow to Glory, but not to his father, a permanent barrier to the old man understanding his son; the woman who helped Jack get back on his feet and remain at least partially sober for the past ten years is now denied to him, a severance that seems to have driven him back to Gilead and, in his mind, has cut him off from salvation in this life or any other. Unfolding these relationships in a way that gets at the heart of family dynamics, of loneliness, of regret, and of the ultimate comfort of home without ever relying on unrealistic plot twists to force characters into false corners is more evidence of Robinson’s mastery of language and of character. She went 25 years between her first and second novels but just three years between Gilead and Home; I can only hope the gap before her next novel is as short as the last.

Flannery O’Conner’s first short story collection, A Good Man Is Hard to Find and Other Stories, is even more theologically-minded than Robinson’s work, combining stories about the meaning of faith, salvation, and what it might mean to be “good.” The stories are largely twisted, even macabre, as in the title story where an escaped convict wipes out an entire family so O’Conner can show us the difference between saying you’re a good person (or, more specifically, a good Christian) and actually being one. O’Conner dreams up killers and con artists, thieves and rascals, putting “good” people in bad situations to see how they might react.

Aside from the notable title story, the most interesting to me was the longest story in the book, “The Displaced Person,” about a rather high-minded Southern widow named Mrs. McIntyre who takes in, under some duress, a family of Jewish refugees from Poland who fled the Nazis. Her ignorance of conditions in Europe at the time is particularly stark to us now, given the passage of time and our deeper understanding of the extent of the genocide and the horrible conditions in and outside of the camps for Jews. But her lack of charity and her unusually defined ideas on race/origin stood out for her post hoc construction of ethnic identities; even as the Jewish husband works harder, without complaint, than anyone else she’s ever had on her farm, she is appalled to find him trying to bring over relatives trapped in German death camps and potentially marry them off to black workers on the farm. The priest who organized the placement of the refugees is no help, as he’s a single-minded, simpering man who sees Mrs. McIntyre only as a shell, as a person to be saved and as a settlement place for the refugee family but not as an individual, an oversight that leads to the story’s ultimate tragedy. That climax is one of the strongest depictions I’ve seen of the banality of evil, a phrase which, not coincidentally, was coined to describe the complicity of German citizens with the Nazi’s plans for extermination of Jews and other minorities.

Anyway, the title of this collection inspired me to create my second Tumblr post.

Next up: Haruki Murakami’s English-language debut novel, A Wild Sheep Chase.

Comments

  1. I love “A Good Man is Hard to Find.” Have you read either of her novels?

  2. Interesting pairing of these two books. It’s clear you prefer Robinson with her more substantial prose and complex character development to O’Conner’s simple language and weighty philosophical questions. I suppose I do as well, although I prefer O’Conner’s last book of stories, _Everything that Rises Must Converge_, to her first.

    One of my problems with O’Conner is that she doesn’t seem to like her characters. They tend to have very strong faults and, more often than not, they tend to have bad things happen to them. I suppose this has to do with O’Conner’s view of the nature (and plight) of humanity.

    By the end of a Robinson novel, on the other hand, the reader has such a full understanding of the major characters that one can’t help but sympathize with them, warts and all.

    As I think about it, one could write some pretty good term papers analyzing the styles and philosophies of these two writers as well as their depiction of post-war rural America. Thanks for drawing the connection–even though it probably was just by chance that you were reading the two at the same time.

  3. @Jeremy: I prefer “Everything that Rises” as well. I think that I disagree with you about O’Connor not liking her characters, though. They’re really lovingly drawn, and although I can’t locate it now, there’s a great quote in her letters where she describes the characters that she creates. If you’re a fan of hers, “The Habit of Being” is really an exceptional read-it’s a collection of letters, but there are some great nuggets of insight into her writing style and character choices.