Skip to main content

New Yorker Fiction Review #246: "Jack and Della," by Marilynne Robinson

Jack and Della,” by Marilynne Robinson | The New Yorker

Review of a short story from the July 20, 2020 issue of The New Yorker...

Again we have a short story printed in The New Yorker as advance publicity for the author's forthcoming book. But I've come to realize that's just how the magazine operates -- most magazines, probably -- and also, if it keeps exposing me to new authors and quality new fiction, what's the problem? We're all unwittingly part of some economic machine or other, and it's ludicrous to think there is not an Arts & Literature Machine out there as well, determining what you watch and listen to.

Jeeze...did that get political fast? Anyway...

"Jack and Della" is, apparently, an expansion of an episode in one of Marilynne Robinson's novels, entitled Gilead (2004). Jack is the recovering alcoholic, ex-convict son of a preacher, recently released from jail and living on the fringes of abject poverty. He is shaken-down by local thugs daily. He sleeps on park benches when he is not spending his days in the library, reading, and accepting cookie donations from the kindly librarian. Della is an attractive, kind-hearted young woman (and black, it should be mentioned) who Jack meets while dressed in priest's garb. The two begin a flirtation, which Jack must conduct surreptitiously because Della is black and also because he must avoid the local thugs who harass him daily. He also must fool Della into thinking he is "good" or at least not a denizen of the street, which it would appear she already knows.

Not sure precisely where the story takes place, but the city of Memphis is mentioned and the city has very segregated "black" and "white" neighborhoods, so it's likely in the South. I'm sure I could ascertain this pretty quickly online but to me it's of secondary importance. 

The main thing Marilynne Robinson does well in this story is create tension. There is a certain kind of delicious tension created in fiction when the problem is that the character doesn't want to be "found out" in some way. In "Jack and Della," Jack is wrapped up in a number of different disguises and therefore his flirtation with Della is on very shaky ground at every moment. Perhaps less shaky than Jack thinks, however, as there is the suggestion that Della knows he's pretending to be a priest and knows he's also poor and without work. 

Jack's great shame is that he has disappointed his father and must accept weekly, secret deliveries of money from his brother in order to survive. In spite of the fact he can do nothing constructive to redeem himself of this shame, or get out of his situation (for now), he feels the shame and embarrassment of his situation very acutely, kind of like a little boy, adding yet another layer to this narrative. To put it simply, Marilynne Robinson has created a highly complex and seemingly tragic character. Bad luck seems to follow him and therefore you just know the end is not pretty, and so you have an itch to find out what happens to him. It's a bit like watching a train wreck you can see from a mile away.

But perhaps, in Gilead, something good happens to Jack? I don't really know. I would say "I'm going to add Gilead to my 'to-read' list" but that's just throw-away statement at this point. If I piled up every author and every book -- even just from my New Yorker reviewing -- that I said I was going to read, I'd be busy until the year 2030. What I really mean is, if I stumble upon Gilead in the library or in Half Price Books some time, and I'm looking around for a new book, I'll buy it and give it a shot. Oh and, by the way, Marilynne Robinson's forthcoming novel is called Jack