When they go home to Gilead

The power of Marilynne Robinson's Pulitzer Prize-winning novel "Gilead" lay in the way it registered the pressures of historical change even as it celebrated simple, persistent virtues. In the Rev. John Ames, Robinson portrayed a decent, pious man who loved the world easily but feared the bad influence of his best friend's reckless son, Jack Boughton. The atmosphere of the book, framed as a long letter to Ames' young son, was almost devotional; the outlines of a good world were affirmed.

"Home" revisits the same Iowa setting and the same two neighboring families, but by shifting the point of view to Jack's sister Glory, the novel achieves a remarkable, subtle rereading of those previous themes. Down the road, a farm or two over, the peace that "Gilead" envisioned through John Ames' eyes becomes more complicated and ambiguous at the Boughton home. "Gilead" may be more lyrical, but "Home" knows more, and it forces us to wonder if Ames' celebratory vision of the world -- hard-won and moving, as it was -- nonetheless remained a product of narrowness, of not going out into the world as his father advised him to and as Jack and Glory Boughton have both done. Though "Home" can easily be read and appreciated alone, it is a rich, jolting experience to read the novels together, watching the different visions compete.

As the new book opens, Glory Boughton has recently returned to Gilead to take care of her widower father, and Jack is set to return for the first time in 20 years. Estranged in his own home since childhood, Jack brings with him a wagonload of midlife problems, from alcoholism and an inability to settle into a job to a romantic relationship whose contours remain mysterious and yet utterly central to the book's larger purpose. For all the pain he causes his family, and for all his struggles to understand himself, Jack remains lovable and very much loved. His aging father, who speaks in tireless (and often tiresome) exclamations, is giddy at his return.

Most of the story unfolds in dinner-table scenes, in conversations on the porch or above a game of checkers, and out among the commotion-free activity of a small farm in 1950s America. The Boughtons get their first TV, and images of the larger world filter in, revealing race tensions in Alabama and Cold War problems abroad. But these are tuned out, seemingly, by the quiet rhythms of rural life and a flip of the television switch. It would give too much away to say why this peace is an illusion. Suffice it to say, Robinson expertly understates the devastating power of racism in the story. As slavery and Civil War trailed the plot lines of "Gilead," segregation is very much in the bloodlines of "Home."

Racism always reflects an imaginative failure as well as an ethical flaw: Prejudice is a refusal of empathy. This kind of failure, it seems to me, frames the ambiguity at the heart of Robinson's novel. For Jack's father has nobility; he is described multiple times as "statesmanlike," and there is about him the whiff of a dying patriarch. Like Ames he embodies older virtues. Those same older notions limit his understanding of the world and of his own family. He can't sympathize with black protesters on TV even when fire hoses are turned against them, and he can't internalize Jack's religious doubts even though he is his son. How can Jack "know all this Scripture," he wonders, and still reject it? How can he have moved on so drastically from how he was raised? How can anyone, for that matter, deny their inherited values and not roam a little Cain-like in the world?

Jack is out of place in his own home not because he doesn't love his father or his siblings but because he suffocates in an atmosphere of older virtues, in which discretion and "fealty to kin" are primary, and honor is the real lifeblood of piety, as Glory understands best: "Her family was slower to forgive a failure of discretion than they were to forgive most things actually prohibited in Scripture." Restless in Gilead, Jack tries to honor the power of primal connections: he defers to his father, takes his turn saying grace and talks himself into attending church, but he cannot experience these connections as "home." In this way, he is as quietly tragic as, in "Gilead," Ames was quietly triumphant.

It is Glory rather than Jack who registers the full range of these competing instincts toward flight and stability. For Glory does feel nourished in Gilead, and to counter her grief she is able to do what her mother did -- to cook "something fragrant," for example, to fill the house with the aroma of comfort, which is real and profound in its own way but also melancholy. "Home is so sad," Philip Larkin wrote in one of his best poems.

For Glory, coming home has been a confession of her own disappointments. She has returned because she has nothing else to keep her away. Manipulated in a bad romance that she lies about to her father, she experiences home as a place where you feel shame as well as calm. It goes on claiming you while also exposing you. "What kinder place could there be on earth," she reflects, "and why did it seem to them all like exile?" Robinson captures this tension here with her customary grace and power. "Home" is a beautiful book, told slow as the prairie, worth every elongated hour.