Wednesday, November 3, 2010

As he lay dying...

Novels about old white men dying - and reminiscing about their dreary lives - are usually not cheerful reading. But sometimes, just sometimes, such a novel can become a transcendental literary experience.

Ever since William Faulkner wrote As I Lay Dying (in which the dying/dead protagonist is a woman), this fictional road has been well travelled. Of course, not all writers who try to follow in Faulkner's footsteps have his talent, so when I come across one of these as-I-lay-dying stories that really grips me, I am always relieved and grateful. Recently I was fortunate enough to read two such novels in consequence. Bliss. Pure bliss.

I knew that Gilead by Marilynne Robinson and Tinkers by Paul Harding had both won the Pulitzer Prize (Robinson in 2005 and Harding this year), but this scrap of literary knowledge didn't prepare me for the impact of the two books. Both deal with death and dying, with sin and mercy and forgiving and other moral issues, and both are brilliantly written.

Harding's protagonist, George Washington Crosby, is a retired teacher who used to tinker with antique clocks, dying of cancer and kidney failure in a hospital bed in the middle of his living room, surrounded by his family. Robinson's narrator, John Ames, is an old preacher with a failing heart in the Mid-West town of Gilead, who writes a letter to his young son, knowing he will never see the child grow into an adult. Neither George Crosby nor John Ames has led an exceptionally interesting or adventurous life - and yet their stories are spell-binding.

Of the two books, I preferred Gilead. Not that Tinkers isn't an absolutely worthy read; it's just that I found Gilead more moving - although for the life of me I can't understand why it touched me so deeply. It is a 'religious' novel, in many ways, and I am not a 'religious' person, in most ways. Nowadays I mostly want to run and hide when I hear the word 'religion' because it reminds me of Tea Party zealots in the USA and their Muslim counterparts in Pakistan or Iran or elsewhere. But in this book I encountered that rare breed, a profoundly moral character, who can give unreligious souls like me renewed respect for religion.

Robinson is not what you would call a prolific author. She waited more than twenty years after her highly acclaimed debut novel, Homecoming, before publishing this second one. Perhaps the long wait produced the amazing grace of Gilead, the calm reflection, the spiritual insight, the pure wisdom. Perhaps I should stop trying to explain my reaction to this extraordinary book and simply urge you to read it - and see for yourself.

Both Gilead and Tinkers are proof that old white men dying can still be unforgettable characters in great books. Glory hallelujah.

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