“Jack” by Marilynne Robinson: Theft of Happiness

I am not sure what readers will make of this, if they have not already read Gilead (2004), Home (2008), and Lila (2014), novels about members of the Ames and Boughton families, set in the fictional rural Iowa backwater of Gilead. Certainly, it seems necessary to have read “Home” to make more sense of Jack Boughton, black sheep of the family from which he has exiled himself for years, most particularly from his pious clergyman father’s attempt to bring him back into the fold, even to the extent of twisting his Presbyterian doctrine into contradictory knots.

Apparently, the author did not originally intend to write a book about Jack, but her ideas about him must have evolved over the years to make this seem imperative. Chronologically, it covers a time before the other novels, I believe in the late 1940s. Jack is a complex character, hard to pin down. I was continually aware of his self-absorption and tendency to overthink everything while trying to define the qualities which make him appeal to those who look beyond the frayed cuffs and raffish air. Intelligent, good-looking, musical and artistic, charming, polite, surprisingly competent when he puts his mind to a practical task, Jack is also a loner and drifter, who finds it hard to fit into the world as it is, fated to blow every chance he gets, his life being a chain of tragicomic mishaps.

Apart from inexplicable misdeeds, he has a tendency to do the wrong thing for the right reason. As a child he was always slipping off, thieving objects he did not really want for reasons he could not explain, and challenging his father with theological questions. Is the root of his problem the tendency to “think outside the box” but to have been born into a profoundly respectable family, and a set of beliefs and sense of duty he was bound to kick against instinctively? Has he been influenced by the Presbyterian doctrine of predestination into thinking that he is fated to fail, so when things are going badly he tries to have as little contact with others as possible?
Matters only grew worse when he got a local girl pregnant and flunked college. Years later we find him shabby and on the breadline, a compulsive kleptomaniac who drinks to ward off his mental pain, doing odd jobs but reliant on the envelopes of cash his kindly brother leaves for him. A recently served prison sentence was ironically for a crime he did not commit, although arguably a just penalty for all his petty thefts. Life is made doubly hard by his obvious education and genteel manner which set him apart from the kind of company he has been reduced to keeping.

With his talent for making life difficult, he falls for Della, a beautiful young teacher who shares his love of poetry but just happens to be black in the segregated city of St. Louis, where it is a crime for them have a relationship, and unwise even to be seen together. Perfect in his eyes, Della remains an enigma. We never really know what makes her tick, but she seems drawn to him by his “pure soul”, essential innocence, plus perhaps the appeal of his patent vulnerability.

The two establish their fateful bond during a night spent in the St Louis cemetery where Jack has gone because he has let out his room to make some money, and she has been accidentally locked in. In a section of nearly eighty pages, more than a quarter of the book, the dialogue often seems stilted, artificial, even obscure, although this may be deliberate to contrast with their later easy but still thoughtful exchanges. It also shows symbolically how, if the two could exist in a world of their own, without society’s restrictions and taboos, they could be happy. Perhaps only a writer hailed as one of the greatest in this century could have risked such a difficult and for many off-putting beginning to a book. Perseverance pays off, since many of the succeeding sections are quite lively and humorous, although poignantly so.

This is the kind of novel which needs to be read slowly and thoughtfully, probably at least twice, to appreciate the insights on human relations which are really more important than plot, and may also explain why the ending just fades out. Marilynne Robinson is clearly steeped in religious philosophy which sometimes lost me. She casually using words like “apophatic” which strike an incongruous note in the more down-to-earth passages and wry humour. Taken as a whole, the four related novels are intriguing, although I suspect an acquired taste.

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