In a scene in Home, the second in Marilynne Robinson’s sequence of novels known as the Gilead series, Glory Boughton, age 9, loses all patience with her older brother Jack. They’ve been playing a game with their six other siblings and Jack has disappeared, as usual.
When they were children he would slip away, leave the game of tag, leave the house, and not be missed because he was so quiet. Then someone would say his name, the first to notice his absence, and the game would dissolve. There was no point calling him. He came back when he came back. But they would look for him, as if the game now were to find him at mischief.
Glory, enraged at Jack’s power to end games simply by disappearing, and mystified that he does so, storms up to him when he returns and shouts: “What right do you have to be so strange!” It’s a scalding exchange, not just because Glory is furious but because she has spoken aloud the question common to everyone in their hometown of Gilead, Iowa. Jack is strange. Why? Who has given him the right?
Jack, the fourth and newest novel in the series, invokes characters who will be familiar to readers of Gilead (2004), Home (2008), and Lila (2014). The Reverends Robert Boughton and John Ames, boyhood best friends who grew up in Gilead in the early 20th century and became preachers together, are now old men near death; the father and godfather, respectively, of Jack, they await his return home before it’s too late. Glory, the youngest Boughton daughter and the presiding perspective in Home, as well as Teddy, one of Glory and Jack’s three brothers, hover on the periphery. But Jack focuses on, as its title would suggest, the character who has eluded, bedeviled, and grieved all the people who have ever loved him: the prodigal son.