The title character of Marilynne Robinson’s most recent novel goes by many names.
John Ames Boughton when he’s performing the formal self he thinks the world wants to see. John Ames when he’s lying (and he lies prodigiously). Slick when, hat askew and smoking, he’s trying to deflect judgement with a rakish but slippery exterior.
Several times he calls himself The Prince of Darkness, a title he’s crowned himself with inside his mind.
Inside Jack’s mind is the only place in this novel. Like “Gilead,” “Lila,” and “Home,” the preceding books in what’s grown to be a series, the narration is super-interior, and produced in the character of Jack himself. We see the world of a down-on-its luck, segregated 1950s St. Louis through the eyes and mind of a man in the deep habit of hiding and self-deprecation. He’s been on the outside looking in for so long—since he was a child hiding in the dark garden of his own house in Gilead, Iowa—that he likes it there in the dark and cold, if only because it’s familiar.
And before we look down on Jack for being strange and stubborn and outside—how many of us are like Jack sometimes? I know I am.
Jack in Prince of Darkness mode sees himself as a tall thin specter haunting nighttime alleyways. But his skittish habits and agonizing self-scrutiny create situations of great physical comedy, one of the pleasant surprises of this novel. I didn’t expect it to be so funny.
In one scene, Jack is compelled to enter a church when parishioners start dropping coins into his upturned hat, thinking the shabby white fellow loitering outside their church was looking for a handout. The coins in the hat lead him to sit through the service and then into further debt over the post-service meal.
In another scene, Jack wanders to the piano in a bar and starts to take requests (he’s really very good). Half-drunk, he knocks out popular tunes by request until some smart-ass from the back of the room asks for a German nationalist tune. It’s also a “very respectable” old hymn, so Jack tickles out a few bars—and next thing he knows, he’s on the floor with the bar in an uproar.
On more than one occasion, Jack steals two books, to balance out his pockets. On another, his pocket bursts while he’s teaching a dance lesson (one of his many temporary jobs), sending a shower of coins to the floor of the dance studio. Thing is, he needs every one of those pennies.
You might try to make a silent film out of this novel, but that would leave out the serious part—the shame and self-doubt that, like a little engine, drive Jack the six-foot-two human around in ridiculous and harmful circles.
Jack’s physical ruts and deep habits of mind are jolted by Della, a teacher from a respected black family. They meet by chance, but once they meet, Jack’s relentless brain can’t resist going back for more. He puts on his charming self, his dark self, his lost self. But Della is not the sort to be charmed. Della sees more than Slick’s exterior and cuts right through his Prince of Darkness routine.
“Once in a lifetime, maybe, you look at a stranger and you see a soul, a glorious presence out of place in the world. And if you love God, every choice is made for you,” Della tells Jack as they talk one night in his shabby rented room. “And it is a miracle when you recognize it.”
Jack doesn’t even know if he loves God (other concerns, like his next meal, are more front and center). But he loves Della by the end of the book, choices have been made for them—choices that defy the social order.
The plot revolves around their slow dance toward one another. Della bravely faces external limits (including the strict—even legal—color divide and her family’s absolute resistance to this marriage) while Jack faces his inner hell for Della’s sake. At many points, he’s more reckless than brave, but he says astonishingly honest things about himself and about the world.
I do take issue with one plot point. The point that ostensibly keeps Della and Jack together is a plot point as old as the story of Eve. I believe the novel could have done without this near-cliché, but sometimes old is true.
I would love for Robinson’s next novel to be “Della.”