Everything’s Coming Up *Marilynne*

[5-minute read]
Robinson receives the National Humanities Medal from Obama in 2012.

Robinson receives the National Humanities Medal from Obama in 2012.

#ObamasFavoriteWriter is the most reductive, semi-dismissive and ‘Net-friendly way to capsulize her, so I won’t. (Um…)

Let’s start this way: Before 2016, I had never heard of Marilynne Robinson, or at least her name never stuck to my brain casing. Now, I have read all four of her novels, listened to a lecture and two interviews, and read and re-read her Paris Review discussion and one book of essays while ploughing through a second, which was my main accomplishment yesterday and the day before. I think about her work, and about her – where does such a person come from? – constantly. I find myself pestering everybody I like whom I consider might be even a remote candidate to read her. She’s a glorious read.

It started with Phyllis¹. She is a retired university prof who decided, as one of her several voluntary teach-ins, to start a book-club looking at great modern fiction with spiritual themes and underpinnings — as if such literature could actually be found in what often seems to be a doubtful, jaggedly ironic and chronically disillusioned age. Surprise! It can be! Phyllis knew where to look. And so, I got to be the token male among a dozen-and-a-half thoughtful, quietly eager book-types. We read Louise Erdrich and Bahiyyih Nakhjavani and the conversations were fun and light-shedding.

¹ Nobody names a daughter Phyllis anymore, yet once upon an old time it was a beautiful name suggestive of green leaves and ancient Greek loyalty and goddess-love. Not bad, Phyll!

But mostly, we careened off on a helpless Marilynne Robinson jag. We couldn’t stop. We didn’t include her 1980 first novel, Housekeeping, which brought her critical praise and a “writers’ writer” designation and a faculty position at the University of Iowa. (I went back and read that one on my own, after I’d finished her Iowa-based sort of a trilogy but not really.) Our little group pulled its chairs up in a circle and started talking about Robinson’s Pulitzer Prize-winning Gilead, which had stunned me and shaken the ground of American fiction at its 2004 publication – not that I noticed! (I show up late to some of the very best parties.)

Gilead came nearly a quarter-century after Housekeeping. I remember Frank McCourt’s reaction to questions about how late in his life his “overnight success” had come. (His 1996 memoir, Angela’s Ashes, was an international publishing sensation; he was well into his 60s when it came out.) “I was TEACHING,” he wrote, “that’s why it took so long!”² Robinson might give the same explanation, as she is a long-time faculty member of the legendary Iowa writers workshop. However, she has said in interviews that, not wanting to contribute shallow or derivative novels to the stream of American literature, she wanted to read. And think, as well as teach. And well she did, and does. She is a profound scholar: history, literature, religion, philosophy. Gilead, far from being a work that she laboured over for the intervening decades, came to her quite quickly in the voice of John Ames, a rural Iowa pastor.

² Ever grateful, I am, for McCourt’s lesser-known third book Teacher Man, an in-depth account of his locally legendary career as a high school English teacher in New York City. My review of Teacher Man has a special place, one of the few JHdotCOM pieces to run elsewhere before it ran here, and as a free-lance piece for which I Actually Got Paid.
The NY Times review is worth a read, if you're hungry.

The NY Times review is worth a read, if you’re hungry.

As I read Gilead, I kept asking myself, How is Robinson doing this? How can a novel about a Christian minister in a nowhere town even get published, let alone be this gripping and so smartly written? Simply put, it is a literary miracle, and our little group couldn’t stop, since neither could Ms. Robinson. She wrote Gilead – it is a tiny actual town in Iowa – as the letter that the aging Pastor Ames writes to his young son, the product of a strange, late and utterly unexpected marriage to a much younger woman. Ames wants to explain himself before he dies, so that the boy will, when he comes of age, know something of his departed father. As a novelistic result, so do we, as well as making other compelling acquaintances  of the imaginary kind: Ames’s young wife Lila, his lifelong friend and intellectual sparring partner Robert Boughton, and Boughton’s troubled and troublesome son Jack. Robinson couldn’t get enough of these characters either, to our good luck and delight.

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Guest Post: Canadian? Nations, First Nations, Homes & Hearts

My second-most-recent post concerned something retrieved from an old file, and who knows what I wrote it on — our best guess is an Apple Mac Classic II, circa 1995. It was about love, renewal, nature, politics and several other things, but one line irritated/inspired one of my most thoughtful readers, Michael P. Freeman. “Many of us have trouble feeling like Canadians,” I had written in “Honeymoons and Rear-view Mirrors”. Mr. Freeman often comments on my stuff, but this submission was so long, so interesting, at times so poetically heart-punching, that I put a truncated blurt in the comment section but asked him if I could publish the whole thing, too. He agreed, and so here’s my second guest column. The first was a brave and moving piece written by a Chinese student; this one comes from a man of Aboriginal heritage who lives not far from my old stomping ground in Haldimand County, southern Ontario, Canada, Turtle Island, the World.

“Many of us have trouble feeling like Canadians,” the man wrote. It got me thinking. The whole desire of the first half of the 20th century was nationalism. We entered into world wars to defeat countries that had a different concept of nationhood. Some would readily trample on the rights of others to impress upon and impose their own brand of ‘nationhood’ on them, and all in the name of what? World advancement? World domination?

Now, with the infusion of a couple of the newest ‘world’ religions, the nations and peoples of the world are being asked, subtly or overtly, to consider nationhood differently, to see it in the context of one world, one global nation without boundaries. It’s a difficult concept for many, especially given that most are still pondering and transitioning to a national vision. Ask a small-town guy what he thinks of nationhood, and I suspect that he would focus on town and kin, on hills and seclusion, on quiet and solitude. Leave behind the busy-ness and bustle of the city. Leave behind crowded buses and streets lined with vendors.

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Electronically Home

Once upon an adolescent time, and several midriff inches ago, I was a Blue Devil (though a long way from Durham, North Carolina and the Duke of universities…) That meant, mainly, basketball and football identity, which in both cases started off as a fairly pitiable athletic I.D. but evolved into something that I cared about and found some team success in.

Today in my Inbox were two blasts from my Blue Devil Past, with basketball and Aboriginal heritage in common. One was C.G., a slender, quiet forward on the Blue Devils hoop squads I ended up coaching years after my playing days were done. He played on some pretty bad teams, come to think of it, but they got better and formed the foundation of better things to come. He was a great kid, but I haven’t seen him in years. Launching his second marriage already. The kids are precocious! Heck, I didn’t get there ’til I was 38.

And after not being able to find her for years, I’ve had my third email in two weeks from a long-lost friend, a former resident of the Six Nations Reserve who, against all odds, fell in love with basketball and got good at it. (We’ll call her “Virg”, because, well, that’s her name.) When I was just learning how to shoot the ball, as opposed to winging a two-handed bazooka shot somewhere in the vicinity of the unsuspecting rim, Virg was launching her own unorthodox, long-distance, self-taught shots in our tiny high school gym and making them with amazing frequency. With very little coaching and almost no good competition, she went on to play varsity ball at the community college in The City. I believe this had something to do with her willingness to walk several miles home after practices with her team, guys’ teams, all by herself or with a white kid who also wore 22 and loved the game with the same hunger. (Hello again, Star!)

Thomas Wolfe said, a propos of what, I’m not sure, that you can’t go home again. Mind you, he didn’t have Gmail.