by Marilynne Robinson

reviewed by Jackie Thomas-Kennedy

The marriage in Marilynne Robinson’s latest novel, Jack, is also an “unmarriage;” Jack Boughton is an “unhusband” to Della Miles. When the two walk together in St. Louis, they do so at their peril. Each minute they spend together in public is an act of trespass; to be near her, he knows, is to endanger her. Della is a Black schoolteacher and the daughter of a Methodist bishop; Jack, the son of a Presbyterian minister, is white, often drunk, and erratically employed. Their marriage cannot, and does not, exist on paper, yet it is the reason Jack’s Chicago landlady expels him (“I took you for a decent man!”). It is the reason Della’s father receives Jack in Memphis and says, “You can never be welcome here.”

This unwelcoming world is no surprise to Jack and Della, and Robinson fittingly sets one of their longest scenes together in a cemetery. There is no safe place for them, but there are fewer spectators among the headstones and obelisks than elsewhere; there is also, of course, the stark presence of death. The encounter is unplanned: Jack, who lives in a rooming house and has served time for theft, makes a habit of wandering the city. Della, who shares with Jack an interest in poetry, comes for writerly inspiration and is wise enough to carry flowers in case she meets a guard who questions her presence. Robinson gives the couple the space to roam in the dark, where their bodies touch from time to time. In their near-solitude, they discuss poetry and the denominations in which they were raised. They critique the choices of the dead: “Isn’t it sinful, anyway, putting up these big monuments to yourself?” Della asks. She and Jack, very much alive, can’t afford such visibility. Yet considerations of propriety must be cast aside; whether or not it’s prudent to spend a night together in a cemetery, the gates have been locked, and now their greatest threat is the guards inside. In or out of the cemetery, there are all manner of locks and guards.

Jack, who belongs to the family of several of Robinson’s earlier works (Gilead, Lila, and Home), recalls the times his father directed a Sunday sermon at his wayward son: “I guess I feel at home in a church. Not at ease, but at home.” The narrator, too, feels at home here. Jack visits a Baptist church after its Black congregants, seeing him with hat in hand, drop coins into it and invite him in for a meal. The moment is one of the finest in this elegant novel, where understatement gives way to a deliberate, targeted gaze. Jack’s appearance is downtrodden enough for the gesture of removing a hat to be read as a kind of plea, answered by rice and beans and the minister’s counsel. This is its own unreliable luxury—to be out of place without being in danger, to be misunderstood without dire consequences. Robinson shows the dynamics of privilege: alone on the street, Jack’s shabbiness leads both Black and white people to mistake him for a beggar. For Della, meanwhile, clothing offers transformation on a painfully limited scale.

Jack grapples often with the notion of “harmlessness,” a quality to which he aspires, though he seems to find it conceptually impossible. There are references to a first child he had and lost in circumstances that sound illicit at best. (These, and allusions to his more reputable brother, Teddy, anchor Jack to Robinson’s other novels.) In Jack’s vision of “harmlessness,” to protect Della, he should leave her. The Baptist minister urges him to do so. The clerk at his rooming house tells him not to bring “colored gals” home. None of that matters, though: their chemistry is visible even when they are locked in disagreement. The opening pages of this novel are full of exclamation points, a kind of excited urgency neither party can bear to subdue. They form a marriage out of language.

Della is pregnant at the close of Robinson’s novel, and the pair agrees to leave Memphis, where she’s visiting family, together; Jack positions himself in the bus station so that he can “see a part of the colored section of the waiting room.” A distressing and sorrowful place to leave them: together and not, married and not, occupying a space they have carved out of nothing.

Published on January 7, 2021