Ames’s calm, grave diary entries contain almost no dialogue, shun scenes, seem to smother conflict before it has taken a breath.
Very beautifully, “Gilead” becomes less a novel than a species of religious writing, and Ames’s entries a recognizable American form, the Emersonian essay, poised between homily and home, religious exercise and naturalism: This morning a splendid dawn passed over our house on its way to Kansas. So every day is in fact the selfsame evening and morning.
This morning Kansas rolled out of its sleep into a sunlight grandly announced, proclaimed throughout heaven—one more of the very finite number of days that this old prairie has been called Kansas, or Iowa. My grandfather’s grave turned into the light, and the dew on his weedy little mortality patch was glorious.
The result was one of the most unconventional conventionally popular novels of recent times.
But stronger than that fancy word is the plain and lovely “the throes of the thing,” with its animism and its homemade alliteration.
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Her new novel, “Home” (Farrar, Straus & Giroux; ), begins simply, eschewing obvious verbal fineness, and slowly grows in luxury—its last fifty pages are magnificently moving, and richly pondered in the way of “Gilead.” “Home” is not a sequel to that novel but more like that novel’s brother, since it takes place at the same narrative moment and dovetails with its happenings.
He is also a bit boring, and boring in proportion to his curious lack of ego.
At home in the Iowa town of Gilead, in the mid-nineteen-fifties, and aware of his imminent demise, he writes a long letter to his seven-year-old son, which is presented as a series of diary entries.
Most were good men, but the peculiar constrictions of their calling produced peculiar opportunities for unloosing.
This is probably one of the reasons—putting the secular antagonism of novelists aside—that in fiction priests are usually seen as comical, hypocritical, improperly worldly or dangerously unworldly, or a little dim.