I never took Marilynne's workshop and, sad as it is to say, never read Housekeeping. I took her Moby-Dick seminar but stopped going when it seemed to be a series of Calvinist sermons. But Gilead... I just finished it. Man. I believe it could very well become one of those small classics, like Of Mice and Men, To Kill a Mockingbird, The Old Man and the Sea, or Gatsby.
The prose is so tight and economical, and yet utterly natural in its rhythms and pacing, that I could only gape in admiration as I turned the pages, alternately nodding and shaking my head. Beginning with an inspired premise -- an old, ailing father in the 1950s writing to his young son whom he'll never live to see grow up, putting the narrator a mere two generations away from the Abolitionist movement -- she solidly and even surruptitiously gathers her story. Like an ocean liner at night, the book ever so slowly makes its graceful turn, so that near the end, I was like a passenger waking up suddenly in a different latitude. The book winds up being not about the poignance of an old man imparting posthumous wisdom to his child, not about the beauty of a saint-like man given an improbable second chance after losing his first family, but about his failures regarding his third child -- his namesake, the incredible character of John Ames ("Jack") Boughton.
This amazing creation, Jack, is simply a marvel to me. He starts out being something of a thorn in the side of our narrator, and was irritating at first to me as a reader. "Oh, that guy, the troubled preacher's son, uh-huh." Then it seemed he was going to become the narrator's final tragedy, stepping in to take over his young family as he faded from the scene. That, I thought, was excruciating, and how wonderful and surprising that old Ames recognized and accepted this impending development in a truly Christian manner. How satisfying that Marilynne gives her best lines to an athieist, has her Christian wringing his hands over his own failings, pulls the rug out from under even our sympathy for Ames by widening the frame to remind us in the end what society really was in the 50s. The final revelation that comes from Boughton (no spoilers here) is like the final turn of the jack-in-the-box crank, releasing at once all the themes that Ames has been carefully trying to weave into a coherent life philosophy -- fatherhood, piety, conformity, social justice, loving your neighbor, race relations, violence, shame. Elizabeth McCracken once said in our workshop, "Only connect." But Marilynne demonstrates that there is connection that narrows, that tidies up, and there is connection that flowers out, that spreads like a net.
Her restraint and generosity toward this menacing character of Jack Boughton is simply delicious and is the chief joy among many I take from this book. How does she do it? He's a villain, but he's always smiling, playing with Ames's child, talking to Ames's wife, never overtly being anything but pleasant and civil. It's chilling to watch this guy in the novel, and incredibly instructive to see how subtly an antagonist can be crafted. And the way he blooms in complexity in the end, dumping the narrator's and reader's assumptions straight into the dirt ... just marvelous and so satisfying.
I was naturally poised to hold my nose through the religious parts, but Ames's humble, sincere Christianity is attractive. And the neat balance Marilynne shows, not just via Jack but through Edward, Ames's athiest brother, was more than enough to carry me through the theological thickets. The other thing that carried me was the structure, the way it builds like a wave starting as a swell far from land, becoming more and more defined, finally cresting and crashing against the sand of our expectations, spewing out such a froth of moral dilemma and hypocrisy in the end that it humbles everyone involved, characters, narrator, reader, country.
On to Housekeeping.
* Update to this post: I have since read Housekeeping and loved it as much as Gilead.