I have much to say regarding the Pulitzer Prize judging panel from a few years back, especially in comparison to the panel from 1940. The standards must have changed quite a bit during the intervening years. That is not to say that Marilynne Robinson's Gilead was not a good book. It is more a statement that John Steinbeck's The Grapes of Wrath was on a whole other level (Rachel Zoe would say, "It is everything!"). The persistence of great prose throughout a novel is the standard by which I choose to judge a book. Steinbeck had the consistency Ms. Robinson lacked.
Why am I being so hard on Ms. Robinson's acclaimed work? And why the comparison of two seemingly disparate books written over a half century apart? Well, because I can. And because they discuss some of the same events (i.e. the Dust Bowl era). That, and The Grapes of Wrath shares an accolade with Gilead: the Pulitzer.
But enough of my rant. Here's my analysis of Gilead:
Take a look at the cover of the book. That tells you everything. In a world where people say, "You can't judge a book by it's cover," this book is defined by it's cover. It should have gotten the award for Best Explanatory Book Cover or Most Matchy to the Plot Book Cover (I obviously should not be in charge of naming book awards).
At first glance, the cover art seems to depict a cross. Similarly, at first glance, the book is about a Congregationalist preacher in a town called Gilead (a Biblical reference). Then, as the story unfolds, one discovers that the themes of the book are about the juxtaposition of opposites. Another look at the front cover reveals the "cross" is not a "cross" but a crossroads, a place where roads going in divergent directions meet (in case you didn't know). Thus, the reader discovers the meeting place, the common ground, even the Golden Mean (if you like Aristotle) where opposites do not attract, but rather find they follow the same path, if only for a moment.
The book is less a novel and more a meditation journal of the preacher, John Ames, initially written to his son. His original intent of writing is quickly abandoned through Ames's constant attentions to the theological and emotional issues he spends his days exploring. The meditations (I chose not to call them ramblings) show a old dog can come upon new epiphanies, even as he comes to the end of his life. He sees the curses of the past bleeding into the blessings of the present. He discusses walking the path of ruin in the chance of coming along hope. He looks back on searing loneliness in the face of current companionship. He grants perceived sinners grace and forgiveness from a once bitter heart. He explores the heartbreaking reality of raising a young son even as he, as a father, is not long for this world.
Sounds pretty good, right? The problem with the book is the mode of writing. I found the fiction journal a hard format to really get into. After reading memoirs and journals in the past, I thought the fiction journal lacked weight and depth. Also, the meandering thought process is tedious. The author put a hint in the book that she may have felt that way too: "I think I'll put an end to all this writing. I've read it over, more or less, and I've found some things of interest in it, mainly the way I have been drawn back into this world in the course of it." I mean the "guy" who "wrote" the journal only found some of it interesting. I feel the same. There were some moments of greatness, but for the most part it just: was.
Rating: 3 out of 7
Note: I know some of you are thinking the name John Ames sounds familiar. That's because it is! The "Tom Ames' Prayer" by Steve Earle is a captivating story that does not ramble at all. Each word is perfect and the plot, succinct as it is, explores some of the same ground as Gilead. My Rating for the "Tom Ames' Prayer": 6.9 out of 7.