Gilead, the companion to this novel, won the Pulitzer Prize for literature in 2005, as well as the National Book Award. Home was a finalist for the National Book Award. Both novels are set in the same small town in Iowa, over roughly the same time period; Gilead is narrated by Congregationalist minister John Ames; Home centers on Ames’ best friend, Presbyterian minister Robert Boughton. Most reviews of Home say that it can stand alone, but after reading it without having read Gilead, I have my doubts. I frequently found myself flipping back a few pages to see if I’d missed something.
The central characters are Rev. Boughton and two of his children: his daughter Glory, recently abandoned by her fiance, and prodigal son Jack, home between drinking binges and the object of the worship and dismay of the rest of the family. The elder Boughton in particular was so irritatingly of two minds about Jack — and consequently so oblivious to the kindness of his daughter — that I mentally pushed him down the stairs more than once as I struggled through the book. Every time Jack and Glory seem on the verge of opening up to each other, the old man interferes:
He shook his head. “It’s hard, coming back here.” He opened the piano and touched middle C. “Did somebody tune this?”
“Papa had it tuned when I told him I was coming home. Back. That was the first thing he wrote to me, after his regrets and prayers and so on. ‘It will be wonderful to have music in this house again.’ I haven’t played, though. I haven’t really felt like it.”
Jack slid onto the bench. “I can’t do it without squinting one eye,” he said. He took a sip from an imaginary glass, set it down again, and sang, “‘When your heart’s on fire, you must realize, smoke gets in your eyes.’”
“I hate that song,” she said.
“‘I’ll be seeing you, in all the old familiar places…’”
“Stop it,” she said.
He laughed. “Sorry. I really am sorry.” He shrugged. “Limited repertoire.”
“How can you even have a repertoire? You never practiced!”
“I thought playing piano had something to do with being Presbyterian. Nobody told me you could get paid for it.”
Their father’s voice rose from the next room, reedy and perfectly pitched. “‘This robe of flesh I’ll drop and rise, To seize the everlasting prize…”
To me, the tone of the book is so muffled in politeness and the squashed hopes of Rev. Boughton and his children, that I felt like I was reading it through a thick scarf. The Barnes & Noble synopsis describes Ames’ voice in Gilead as “luminous”, one of those words reviewers are wearing out with overuse. If Home was luminous, I found it lit by a very low-wattage bulb. I admit that I’m allergic to churchiness, having spent a childhood of Sundays imprisoned at First Presbyterian. Maybe the Congregationalist voice in Gilead would have been less irritating to me, but I don’t think I’m game to find out.
Photo credit: David Herwalt