Lost Souls

Home by Marilynne Robinson. Picador. 325pp. $14.00

I have now read all three novels of what I suppose might be called the Gilead trilogy, Gilead itself, Home, and Lila. I unfortunately read them out of order, Lila first. I also read them when I was moving out of a tiny apartment and back into our renovated house, then settling into that house, getting used to it, helping with the dozens of tasks that needed doing. I have to admit sheepishly that I didn’t give Ms. Robinson my best attention. I especially feel that way about Home. Days went by when I hardly picked it up. It wasn’t the best way to read a book.

I find, to my surprise, that my strongest reaction isn’t aesthetic but emotional. I responded not so much to the novels but to the people in them, the way they’re living, and their attitudes—especially—toward religion. I had a violent reaction, as I seldom do when reading a novel. But the experience helped me look into my own life, and see how my own attitudes have changed through the years.

But the aesthetic matters first. Home is, like the other books, a beautifully written and subtle novel, with rich vivid characters who are doing their best to lead worthwhile lives. It focuses on three people who appeared in the other books, Reverend Broughton, the Presbyterian minister who was such good friends with John Ames in Gilead; Broughton’s daughter Glory, who has come to take care of her father in his old age; and John Ames Broughton, the ne’er do well child who was such a problem for John Ames in Gilead, and who has come home to make changes in his life and be reconciled to his father. John’s past is shadowy to say the least, and he isn’t forthcoming even to his sister, who looks after him and their father while he’s there. These three people cohabit for nearly the entire duration of Home. The time is apparently the fifties, because our characters talk about Ike and Adlai and John Foster Dulles.

This doesn’t sound like the most promising premise for a novel: a repressed Presbyterian family gets together at the end of their father’s life to hash out their difficulties. The one person who led an adventurous life, going against everything he was taught, isn’t talking, and it’s his intention to reform. There are some startling revelations in the last fifty pages or so, but for much of the novel, people keep things from each other, and from us. It’s just Presbyterian life in Missouri. Roast beef for Sunday dinner and then you shuffle out to the rocking chair. Ho hum.

What I’m about to say may be a spoiler, but I’m not sure that, for a more sophisticated or observant person, it really is: John’s problem is alcohol. When he finally went off the wagon in a rather spectacular way, I wondered why I hadn’t noticed much sooner, that he was doing all kinds of chores to keep himself busy, was bending over backwards (to the point of annoyance) to be decorous and polite, that he kept odd hours, ate little, disappeared for hours at a time: by the time he went on a bender I shouldn’t have been surprised. The man is a drunk. And instead of attending AA meetings and getting a sponsor and avoiding the things that set him off, he goes home and isolates himself and tries to reconcile himself with the situation that probably made him drink in the first place.

What drove me crazy about this novel—to the point of wanting to throw it across the room—is its attitude toward religion. There aren’t many bestselling literary novelists who are mainstream Protestants, who have written a substantial body of nonfiction about their faith, who largely center their fiction on religious matters. Marilynne Robinson must have felt at the height of her powers when she took on this subject. No one else would have touched it with a ten foot pole.

Broughton is a conventionally religious preacher, quite conservative. Ames is similarly religious but seems to have more heart. They have apparently gotten together for years to argue about doctrinal matters, and this—along with a nice cup of coffee and an occasional hot game of checkers—is their idea of fun! The part of the novel that drove me crazy, when I almost quit, was then the two of them, along with the sweet loving daughter and the wicked prodigal son, got together to discuss these matters at length. It was like a dorm bull session at Oral Roberts University. People were getting all riled up at subjects like grace and predestination, and what those things meant to their lives.

I (the reader may have guessed by now) was raised Presbyterian and spent a fair number of years banging my head against these same walls. I tried, in my own way, to effect the reconciliation that John is trying for, though I was not a drunk and didn’t have as much to repent of (though I had plenty).

What I realized as I read this novel is what is ass backwards with this whole enterprise. It isn’t just that Protestant religion is so focused on sin, putting morality and spirituality into a kind of death grip where neither one can budge. The real problem is that Protestant religion begins with premises that someone formulated in the distant past, out of his own experience, and everyone who comes afterwards is supposed to understand them and acquiesce immediately. As my grandfather once said to me about some obscure point of Presbyterian doctrine, “That’s how we understand it. That’s what we believe.” What do you mean we? I wanted to say. Nobody asked me.

Once when I was talking to a friend about some really far out faith, like Mormonism, I mentioned how irrational I thought it was. Yes, he said, but when you think of it all religions are irrational. People decide for some reason to believe this irrational thing.

But then—if you’re a Protestant, especially if you’re C.S. Lewis—you try to discuss it rationally. The Reverends Ames and Broughton have spent their whole lives doing that. That’s why they both have that cross-eyed, whacked over the head look. And when someone like John Ames Broughton comes to them, and is asking questions that seem to be abstract (do you think some people are just born bad? They come into this earth and they’re destined for hell?), but obviously apply to his particular case, and people are sitting there talking as if it’s some abstract question of philosophy, that’s when I want to throw the book across the room. How can a sane person believe this? Why would anyone believe it? Why would an intelligent novelist write this crap?

Buddhism—at least Zen Buddhism, at least as I understand it—starts at the other end. We do the religious practices with no preconceived notion of what they mean—sitting in silence, bowing, chanting—and discover meaning for ourselves. What will happen when I meditate? people often ask me, when I give them instruction, and I answer (in as nice a way as possible) How the hell would I know? Maybe you’ll go to sleep. Maybe you’ll dream about sex. Maybe you’ll meet God.

Whatever happens, we don’t talk about it, not because it isn’t important, but because it’s impossible to talk about. The Buddha refused to talk about God not (in my opinion) because he didn’t believe in God, or hadn’t encountered him, but because nothing he could say would be true, or helpful.

The Buddha was once walking with his followers in the forest, picked up a handful of leaves and said, “Are there more leaves in my hands or in the forest?” In the forest, they replied. “The leaves in my hands are what I’ve taught you,” he said. “The leaves in the forest are what I’ve learned.” Perhaps they wondered why he hadn’t told them more, but I think it was because he couldn’t. You have to discover those things for yourself. Some things can’t be put into words.

That’s why Zen teachers refuse to theorize and conceptualize, keep sending students back to their own experience. (What is the Way? The pile of dung in the yard.) “Open mouth already a mistake” is a wonderful Zen statement. Never does it seem truer than when a bunch of Protestants are talking about God.

No one in this novel seems happy. No one in the whole trilogy seems happy, except perhaps John Ames after he got married (and then he kept worrying that he didn’t know his young wife well and that she was about to leave. And by the way, how did that woman get pregnant. Do you mean to tell me that John actually . . .). I don’t want to spoil this book by giving away details; let me just say that at the end the story is heartbreaking, for everyone concerned. To top it off, there’s an O’Henryesque situation where the thing that John Ames Broughton was hoping for all along finally happens after he leaves, or at least it seems to. That isn’t to say he would have been happy if he’d been there. Nothing seems to make that man happy. But that situation magnifies the heartbreak. Despite all that, despite the fact that there hardly seems to be a pleasant moment in the whole novel, the final sentence is, “The Lord is wonderful,” apparently for bringing this whole thing about.

Really? Seriously? The Protestants are going to have to figure that one out, over one of those games of checkers. It’s beyond me.