By coincidence I read Flannery O’Connor’s Wise Blood for the first time right before reading Marilynne Robinson’s Home for the second. It was impossible to miss the common elements in these two intensely different novels: two men who reject Christ, for whom American racism is one of the most compelling arguments against Christianity, who have ferociously self-destructive urges toward pain as penance, and who have a disastrous sexual relationship with a young teenage girl. (Sabbath Lily Hawks is fifteen; Annie Wheeler was either fourteen or fifteen, I don’t recall.) Both are mistaken for preachers because of how they’re dressed but also probably for some other, inward reason.
All these parallels only make the novels’ utter dissimilarity stand forth more sharply. Wise Blood is a welter of abnormality, every character is as far from undistorted humanity as Gonga the gorilla. The prose is swollen and punchy too: the “rat-colored car,” the “pulp of yellow sock.” I eat that stuff up with a spoon, that noirish unexpected prose.
The moral-philosophical world of Wise Blood is black and white in a specifically twentieth-century way. It is God or nothing, Christianity or amorality. Hazel Motes doesn’t have sex because he wants to–he’s one of those Ralph Nader types where you can’t tell if they eat food–but because it’s a way of rejecting Christian morals. Ah, I remember moral relativism. Nowadays everybody’s got their own stringent morality, so everybody gets to claim the moral high ground. Remember when we used to think nihilism was worse than self-righteousness?
There’s a bit in the book where we see new moralities emerging: the pushy capitalist belief in humans’ inherent inner goodness, for example, and the use of happiness as a moral standard. This is different from Hazel’s insistence that everybody’s clean. He means that we have an absence of some specific thing which is sin. The fake preacher, “Onnie Jay Holy,” by contrast is arguing that we have a real present thing inside us: “Every person that comes onto this earth… is born sweet and full of love,” and the “new jesus” will “help me bring my sweet nature into the open.” The fake preacher gets a fake prophet, who will make you happy, if you “Help yourself to salvation.” Poor Hazel, who cares only about truth and not about happiness or any of this nonsense, has no idea what to do with these guys.
And that sad sordid business with Sabbath Lily Hawks isn’t something Hazel sought out. She in fact pursued him. I don’t think this is a statement about how fifteen-year-old girls are seducers, jezebels and man-traps. In fact I think the opposite thing is going on. Hazel is bewildered by Sabbath Lily’s attitude toward him and it is meant to be pretty baffling (he is the world’s least eligible bachelor). Her pursuit of him is an overturning of order, an example of the unintelligible chaos by which Hazel is surrounded. It doesn’t work as an example of chaos if you think of this as a normal way for young girls to behave (young: she’s insistently described as a “child”) or an acceptable relationship for Hazel to take up.
Home is written in a more naturalistic style. On rereading I did see all the repetition, which is partly form-follows-function (we’re supposed, I think, to be as exhausted by repeated hard lessons as Jack is) but partly self-indulgence. “Ah, Home,” you know? The constant repetition of Jack’s “weariness” definitely becomes too much. I first read this book maybe a year after I quit drinking, and it hit me very hard, this overexplicit expression of alcoholic self-loathing. Now I do think it wallows. That tugging of the heartstrings, or sinking in the stomach, or whatever this book does to your viscera, I think it does a little too consistently. That said, some of the bits which seem like wallowing are I think doing something else. Jack’s open statements of his own unworthiness, for example. There’s a sick thrill in reading that kind of thing if you’ve felt it yourself over the long term: At last, somebody says it out loud! But it’s also in character for him as a way of punishing both himself and his family by making crystal-clear exactly how much he thinks can be said to his face. “I didn’t deserve to speak to you the way the others did.”
So much of this book is so good. The misunderstandings and well-meaning acts which have the opposite effect of what was intended. (This is another book of bad advice, a genre I always love. Everything turns out so much worse than you wanted it to, and it’s always so understandable why!) The way your understanding of what Christianity is forms through your family, especially if you deeply and inescapably believe them to be better than you are; and the way your family inevitably mixes in so much falsehood with the truth. The “self-enamored” Boughtons, with their strenuous kindness which always makes its object feel both grateful and worse. Things reach a point where Jack’s father can tell him flat out that he thinks too much about what he deserves–which is, how you say?, the Gospel truth–and yet Jack can’t quite hear him, because it all gets caught up again in this question of whether God withholds from some of us His grace.
Part of Jack’s problem is precisely that he does have an alternative morality. He judges his family’s and town’s morals, and he judges them accurately. But he can’t ever trust in that judgment because he also believes them to be good people (this evil, evil category which all of us should reject as we reject any heresy) who are, fundamentally, immovably, his moral betters. He knows them to be wrong about a question which is central to his own current life and the moral life of the country, and yet they still define for him what it means to be Christian and what it means to be good. How can anybody trust God in that situation?
I gave this book and Gilead to someone who grew up in small-town Iowa during the ’50s, when these books are set. Gilead moved her, and she said it did ring true. With this book she said that there was some wishful thinking about race. Race is central to the Gilead trilogy in a way it isn’t with Wise Blood. (Although I think you can connect the whole “Jesus is a trick on n—–s” thing to Hazel’s army experience, and in fact maybe to Enoch Emery’s experience with the “Welfare woman,” and all the police violence: In this Christian country everybody’s not only unprotected but betrayed. There’s a Cujo element of the untrustworthy authority figure. You could imagine the Sharp Cereal Professor in this novel, for sure.) All-white Gilead is racist and unsafe for black people, but this Iowan reader basically said, “Nobody where I grew up would have thought some of the things these people think, or tried some of the things they try.” The window of what Robinson’s characters thought might be just barely possible was, she felt, still too wide. You could argue that the book is built on false hopes, thwarted intentions, and wrong assessments of other people’s minds, so it fits; but I actually don’t think that’s right, I think the Iowan reader was right to think the book itself shares its characters’ wishful thinking.
As for Annie Wheeler. Home is in large part about what it’s like to love someone who has done objectively, unfudgeably evil things. You first think, Oh, some childhood pilfering, some pranks. Alcoholism, the moral valence of which I certainly am in no position to assess. Some jail time. These things happen. But then you learn what happened with Annie. You don’t even learn it all at once: One of the recognizable features of this book, for your common or garden alcoholic, is the way Jack is always learning that there’s more horror and shame in his past than he remembers or ever knew. You think you’re opening an old box of nightmare but the box, it turns out, has no bottom. I still discover stuff down in those depths, now and then. It’s fun, A+++ would repent again.
And so again, although this is a book about a man being forgiven for his sexual encounter with a young teenage girl and its consequences, it doesn’t work if you think he had any excuse. The act has to be horrifying in order for the forgiveness to have the weight Robinson needs it to have. And the act needs to be horrifying in order for the novel to challenge the reader’s own faith. If we’re going to love Jack Boughton, and I think most readers do, there can be no room for us to consider him a good man.