If mid-twentieth-century Gilead were a real place, I would certainly buy a bus ticket there. This fictional Iowa town of Marilynne Robinson’s soon-to-be four novels has captured my imagination from the beginning, with Gilead (2004), followed by Home (2008), and Lila (2014). I can’t wait for the release of Jack (2020), but in the meantime, I will content myself with the excerpt, “Jack and Della,” over at the New Yorker.

Were I lucky enough to travel to Gilead, I would be sure to pack my church clothes, hoping for a chance to meet the elderly Congregationalist pastor John Ames (along with his enigmatic young wife, Lila). And then I’d love to worship at the Presbyterian church of Ames’ best friend, Rev. Robert Boughton. Like a lot of curious parishioners, I’d have my eyes discretely fixed on those eight (!) Boughton children sitting on the front pew, and especially that wayward boy, Jack. There is just something irresistible about a prodigal preacher’s kid. Jack has the misfortune of knowing that many of his father’s sermons were directed primarily, and ineffectually, toward him.

In “Jack and Della,” my longing for Gilead and her people deepened with a glimpse of a grown up Jack, a more-than-gently-used version of Jack, a wandering prodigal recently emerging from prison wearing a suit that makes him look suspiciously like his preacher father. Jack is a man of few virtues, but one of them is on display as he watches “a young Black lady in a lavender coat” accidentally drop a stack of papers on the ground in the rain. He courteously hands her his (stolen) umbrella and helps this schoolteacher, Della, retrieve her soggy exams. She takes him for a “Reverend,” and invites him over for tea. They talk poetry, a subject Jack has recently acquainted himself with as he wiles away the hours at a local library.

Later, feeling guilty about impersonating a preacher, Jack trades the black suit in for a cigarette-stained brown tweed suit. (“It was a relief to put all his pretensions down on the counter.”) Della spots him wearing that suit, one truer to his identity, and is somehow not put off by it. One Sunday morning, she actually sits down at the other end of the park bench where the unwashed and unshaven Jack is dozing: “She glanced at his face, saw whatever she saw, and went back to her book.” Still, despite their caution surrounding interracial relationships in that era, Jack finds hope of “an actual thread of connection between them.”

Their first (surreptitious) date comes to a tragic and premature ending, as Jack hears the voices of gangsters he owes money to and bolts the restaurant with no explanation to Della. Despite his efforts at evasion, Jack still cannot escape a beating. He lays down in his bloody clothes and fears that his life is closing in on him — no future with Della, no freedom to visit the library, no choice but to walk around looking like a “bum.” And that was not the worst of it: “the way his father would sorrow over his unconcealable wound was the thought he could not bear.”

Jack is not the first preacher’s kid to suffer over a perpetual failure to live up to their father’s righteous ideals. Jack’s righteous-seeming suit might have initially fooled Della, but Jack knows full well who he is, and who he is turns out to be a grand disappointment.

If “clothes make the man” (as Jack quotes to himself), Jack is perpetually under-dressed, especially in the eyes of the good church folk he grew up among. Even as an adult, Jack could not shake the judgments of his own father and the burden of his guilt led him to dress the part of a vagrant.

What Jack needs (and what we need) is the intervention of the father in Luke’s gospel who cries to his servants to “bring the best robe” and ring and sandals to dress the recently-returned wretch from the far country (Lk 15:22). What if such borrowed garments do make the man, after all?