dwrites, August 04, 2011
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This is a story that invites, not demands, the reader's slow, thoughtful chewing. In that respect, such a novel has not appeared in years. Perhaps not since Robinson's previous, Housekeeping. If you're fairly young, you can't imagine what you'd have in common in a dying Congregationalist preacher in the mid-1950s. If you're not Christian, even more problematic, as the Rev. Ames peppers this long, dying letter to his son, still at a tender age at the writing, with Scripture.
There is Robinson's gift, for this book is about all us all, after all.
Much narrative, little dialogue, you flip through it and wonder how to survive it. But soon you're going back and re-reading passages you've just read, not because they've confounded you, but because of the shock or universal truth and the beauty in their conveyance.
There is not a literary convention that Robinson does not employ with elan. You want to shake Ames from his apparent naivete, only to come to understand, later, that he wasn't naive at all.
He lives in the delight of a home freshly (for a man of seventy-something) endowed with a young wife and a very young son. Now the doctor tells him he isn't long for the world. The conceit is that Ames will herein write to his adult son (for that's when the letter is intended for opening) the many things he feels that he, as father, should teach a son and tell him about his family history -- which includes forays by a grandfather with the raiding John Brown in Kansas -- but ought not tell so young a boy.
The result is an intricate embroidering of an Iowa town (Gilead) that's been fraught with as much devastation and plain hard living and some better times and some strange and beautiful souls as any we've ever met anywhere in literature.
The story arc sneaks up on you. By then you're invested in Ames and his young family. Ames, his best friend (also a minister), his namesake (the other minister's son), have some coming-to-terms to do, with themselves and with each other. And as it will do, life's circle goes on, dips, rises, ends, starts anew, and with Gilead, we also find ourselves renewed.
The kind of rare, lovely artifact that changes us.