slowing down?; there is a balm in Gilead
That Very Night . . .
As I lay in my bed, in the dark, I started thinking about the one-man show that keeps getting pushed back. I want to get back to work on that and the opening section of it is envisioned to be vocalizations and movements in response to breath.
So, I start vocalizing.
It doesn't take long before my live-in feline companion, Cunningham the Boycatt, jumps up on the bed and comes to check out my face, curious and perhaps a little disturbed by all those odd sounds coming from it.
I give him a pat on the head and tell him, "It's okay, Boycatt, I'm just rehearsing."
In bed, of course.
After laughing for a bit, I rolled over and tried to slow down my mind a bit so I could sleep.
Marilynne Robinson's Gilead won the Pulitzer Prize last year and it sold a lot of books and seemed to be a popular choice for a good many book clubs. All of which triggered my knee-jerk inner snob. If it's that popular, how good can it be?
And yet I was curious because it seemed to be a book of religious themes, indeed about a Christian minister, and that it won the reasonably secular Pulitzer told me something was up with it.
Briefly, the book is a first person narrative from an aging 70-something preacher who re-married late in life and has a kindergarten-ish aged son. He's also recently been diagnosed with some heart condition that will certainly take his life before too very long. So the conceit of the narrative is that it's a long letter to the adult son he won't see grow up.
And it's fairly brilliant.
Quietly brilliant, but brilliant all the same.
That's the thing about this book, really, and it was named for me by a co-worker who also read it. It's a quiet book. The narrative voice is strong and compelling and even if it started out a bit slow (I remember looking to see the book had 247 pages and thinking, "200 more pages of this?"), it quietly grabs you can asks you to keep reading.
Because in this small, midwestern town, this Congregationalist preacher has been the one people told their scandals to, told him their secrets and fears. Oh, even the scandals are really rather quiet by Hollywood standards, but the big one, the one that bothers the preacher the most, is a scandal that was really testing the times they were living in. (The time of the book is the 1950s, if I understood and remember the references correctly.) The scandal involves the son of a colleague, named after the narrator when it looked like the narrator would have no heirs. This name, passed down to the next generation not via blood but through the bonds of friendship become more burden than blessing. That child becomes the one that gives preacher's kids a bad name. Except he's not a bad kid. He's just too perceptive for his own good, too much of a free thinker to take anything that is as the way it has to be.
And so I'll leave you with that mystery because Robinson unfolds it so beautifully. Just when you've accepted that the narrator is a saint without measure, this son, now a fully grown man, maybe 40-ish, returns to the town and stirs up old feelings and old resentments and finally this old man, writing to his adult son decades in advance, finally the preacher confesses his own regrets, his own shortcomings, his own questions about how he's spent his life.
There were moments when I thought, would someone write this to his child, especially when the child is truly still a child, even if the intent is that the child read it as a grown man? But then I realized that this part of the magic of what Robinson accomplishes here. What starts out as a letter to tell a young man all the things a father should tell a young man, it slips into an accounting, as in giving an account, of his life. He starts by giving a lesson in family history, how his father and grandfather (both preachers) would argue and the hurts nursed between them, and then almost unexpectedly slips into the history and hurts he has nursed and has no way of changing. It starts out as a letter of encouragement and instruction and becomes a journal of confession.
The other bit of magic that Robinson created is that I never once doubted that the person writing the letter was an old man. Seems silly to say that because of course I bought a book by Marilynne Robinson and I knew she composed the words on the page. And yet, after I finished reading it and thought on it, I realized I completely believed the persona Robinson took on to write this book. It seems to me she knows how old preachers think. As the narrator himself might say, it's a remarkable thing.
In short, read this book. Even if it is a religious setting and a religious mind narrating the story, it's not about religion or even religious things. It's about humanity in all it's strength and frailty.
Which, now that I write that, pretty much requires religious language to illuminate it.