If you are a fan of Marilyne Robinson’s Gilead series of books then you will inevitably find yourself reading ‘Jack’. If you haven’t read her stuff and you are in the pastoral type vocations then do yourself a favour. It’s unusual writing and stories that are generally bereft of ‘action’, yet full of significance.
Jack is the prodigal son of his preacher father. He’s the guy who just can’t seem to get it together – or if he can he is inevitably lured back to the vices that have previously snared him. He is a liar, a thief, an alcoholic and a self confessed ‘bum.’ He has no faith whatsoever in his ability to straighten out and have his life take an upward turn, and the story follows him (at times excruciatingly so) through multiple self inflicted moments of failure.
Truth is Jack is more like us than any of would want to admit. He is a struggler, a stray and one who appears to lack any hope in his ability to change. The focus this story is on his relationship with Della – a black woman who happens to love Jack in spite of all his foibles. Jack already has one failed relationship and a child from that encounter that he never sees, so his confidence is low and his capacity for human interaction also woefully inadequate.
Part of the strength of the novel is seeing inside Jack’s head to his second guessing his own decisions, his feelings of temptation and his desire to be better – even if he doesn’t desire it enough. Of course it is set in an era where inter-racial relationships are illegal so this is a large focus of the story. Two ‘outcasts’ in their own way come together much to the consternation of those around them. Della is the daughter of a bishop, so she has standing in her own black community. She has a bright future as a teacher, but not if she stays with Jack. Jack manages to secure one good job, but then quits on a whim in pursuit of Della.
It’s a story where there are no winners – just people making difficult and sometimes foolish decisions. Perhaps the remarkable thing is that Della genuinely loves Jack in spite of his complete inability to live a decent life. Don’t read Jack if you want action and intrigue, but do read it if you are up for exploring the darkness of people’s hearts, but also the beauty that is possible in those moments.
I enjoyed it – but then I am a Robinson fan 🙂