Funny. I always thought the parable of the prodigal son had a happy ending. Quick check with the King James Bible: Yup, Dad comes running to kiss his son; everything ends with presents, feasting, and merriment. The only fly in the punch bowl is the older son – a jealous, paltry, unforgiving type.
Pulitzer Prize-winning author Marilynne Robinson takes a long, hard look at what happens after the prodigal son wakes up the next day in her new novel, Home. And it turns out there was a reason the boy left in the first place.
But Robinson here takes a highly unusual tactic: Instead of writing a sequel to her award-winning 2004 novel “Gilead,” Robinson returns not just to the small town of Gilead, Iowa, but to the events of the previous novel – showing them this time from the viewpoint of the Boughton household.
This time around, in Gilead, the events are witnessed by Glory Boughton, the baby of the Boughton family, who’s returned home with her life in shambles at 38 to take care of her dying dad. (Readers of “Gilead” will remember Robert Boughton as John Ames’s fellow minister and lifelong friend.)
The result is a work that’s less luminous but more devastating. There’s no history, Christian philosophy, or cameos by abolitionist John Brown to liven things up this time, just a quiet implosion of hope.
Jack Boughton left Gilead 20 years before, after getting a teenage girl pregnant and legendarily breaking his father’s heart. After a long battle with alcoholism and at least one stint in prison, he’s come back, but he and his family soon discover there’s a difference between returning to a place and finding your way home.
“Why did he leave? Where had he gone?” Glory remembers. “Those questions had hung in the air, while everyone tried to ignore them, had tried to act as if their own lives were of sufficient interest.”
There’s no jealous older brother, just a desperately lonely sister who was 16 when he went away (and who’s a trifle resentful that her dad takes her for granted while treating every act of kindness from Jack as if it were a gift from God.)
Meanwhile, the dad, while he seems to be as thankful as the one in the Scripture, can’t run to meet his son anymore.
As for the feast, well, Jack was days later than expected, so the cream pies had to be fed to the dogs. There is a roast beef, though, so that pretty much covers the fatted calf.
Both dad and sister unite in a conspiracy of silence and solicitude to try to keep Jack from leaving again.
“Then there was the question, ‘Why are you here?’ which they would never ask. Glory thought, Why am I here? How cruel it would be to ask me that.”
Although they can barely talk to each other at first, Glory and Jack form a tentative bond. Jack, with his brilliance and evasiveness, has kept people at a distance with politeness ever since he was a child.
Glory uses goodness as a shield. “She was good in the fullest and narrowest sense of the word as it is applied to female children. And she had blossomed into exactly the sort of adult her childhood had predicted. Ah well.”
Glory also has learned the art of evasiveness: She’s told her family that she married rather than reveal that her already-married fiancé cheated her out of her savings.
But while his family is thrilled to see him alive after all this time, the rest of Gilead doesn’t remember the Boughton black sheep with anything remotely approaching fondness. Jack’s unable to get a job and becomes the prime suspect in a string of petty thefts. His letters to the woman he loves are returned unopened.
Most suspicious of all is his godfather, the Rev. John Ames.
“Gilead” was written as Ames’s memoirs, addressed to the young son he will not see grow up. As a narrator, Ames was a humble, thoughtful man, wrestling with profound Christian and philosophical questions. Readers who haven’t read that novel first will have absolutely no idea why Jack longs for his blessing.
The John Ames of this book is distant, forbidding – at times downright unkind. “Ah, little sister, these old fellows play rough,” Jack tells Glory after Ames shames him publicly. “They look so harmless, and the next thing you know, you’re counting broken bones again.”
Robinson uses Jack’s visit home to conduct a thoughtful, exceedingly patient, examination of the nature of grace and perdition. It’s a measure of her abilities that, even though a reader knows precisely what’s coming, she’s able to break hearts all over again.
Yvonne Zipp regularly reviews fiction for the Monitor.