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Sunday, November 21, 2004 - Page updated at 12:00 A.M.
By Robert Allen Papinchak
It's been more than 20 years since Marilynne Robinson's unforgettable first novel, "Housekeeping," was published. It deservedly won a PEN/Hemingway Award and was nominated for the Pulitzer Prize. Robinson's new novel, "Gilead," is propelled by some of the same themes of loneliness and survival and is written with the same lucid prose style, but its characters are not nearly as engaging nor its story as compelling.
In 1956, Kansas-born preacher John Ames is 76 years old and ailing in the "shabby little town" of Gilead, Iowa, when he writes this book-length serial letter to his 7-year-old son from a second marriage. He identifies himself as "an old man struggling with the difficulty of understanding what it is he's struggling with." Much of the letter is a theological narrative on his physical and philosophically isolated condition. It is also a labored genealogical biography of the family of preachers which preceded him, including his father and grandfather.
The stories Ames tells of his forebears include childhood memories of searching for his grandfather's abandoned Kansas grave site and of that minister's visions of God and his involvement with abolitionists. He tells of the consequences of his father's pacifism. Atmosphere is provided by images of the Spanish influenza, World War II and a captivating tale of how a whole town had to be moved after a horse caused the collapse of a street.
Ames' somber life is tied up with his namesake and best friend, John Ames Boughton, and that man's son, Jack Jr. Jack, a prodigal son, bears a secret that he reveals to Ames. The parallels to Ames' family are a bit too pat and anticipated, even though they relate to the primary theme of fathers and sons and the necessity for forgiveness and repentance.
The texts for Ames' prolonged religious discourse on emotional survival are based on the essence of the approximately 2,250 sermons he has written over 45 years. Those sermons exposed his "innermost life," but not in a way that he finds satisfactory. He seeks understanding for the "dreams of an anxious, fuddled old man" and learns that "a man can know his father, or his son, and there might still be nothing between them but loyalty and love and mutual incomprehension."
In the end, "Gilead" falters because of an uninteresting, one-dimensional main character and a bland, placid story line that is more often told rather than revealed.
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