What am I supposed to do with the ending of Gilead?
Because whatever it is, I’m pretty sure I’m not doing it.
Ames gave the fuck up. I’m sorry, but he gave up. He didn’t say a damn word to Boughton, didn’t ask even himself if young Boughton’s plan would have worked out in this town. He didn’t say a word. And that’s…it’s giving up. I don’t care if he’s dying. I don’t care if he’s tired. He doesn’t even ask himself. If he did, he’d say it in this, his last text before his death. And he doesn’t even ask himself. How disingenuous. How disloyal. To young Boughton, sure, but more relevantly, to his cause, and to himself.
I’ve been thinking about this for days. I kept returning to pages I had marked, trying to make something of them:
–because, yeah, I loved Ames, and identified (narcissistically at times, grossly indulgently so, I know, I get it) the hell out of myself, with him. But that doesn’t say a whole lot of good about me, now, does it, when at the end all you’ve got is a bunch of pretty ruminations but no action taken — one of the few powers left to the old man, and he takes no action. He says not a word. How could he do nothing? He and we spend the whole second half of the book in a sneaking, sinking dread of how he is about to be hurt worse, at the very last. A life spent mostly in mourning and then the brilliance of love and now that will be dimmed and dulled and taken from him, we think. He tries to prepare himself for this. We (I) beseech him not to. To say any damn thing, instead of just sitting there in his chair writing about how terrible it will all be.
But he’s wrong! And we’re wrong! And it’s something else entirely that drives that asshat young Boughton to his doorstep day after day! It’s something Ames has the power, if not to fix, at least to pave the way forward for. Say a word. To the community (which holds him in esteem!), to old Boughton. Say something. Is his silence his lack of forgiveness? He said he never could forgive young Boughton for the fatherhood he squandered the first time. Is this that grudge still held? Because I get the sense that we are supposed to look at Ames’ last words, and his sorry-ass farewell and blessing (right, because that helps anyone but himself) and think “ah well, he tried, and now he’ll say some pretty things and go off and die peacefully now,” and well, no. The hell will I clap you on the back for doing exactly nothing, buddy. You bothered to pursue the issue far enough to figure out what it was, now at least make an effort to help this guy. Not because he deserves it, necessarily, because he’s kind of an ass. But is your grudge against this man going to damn his family too? If yes, is this supposed to be our lesson here? “The people who could fix things in America won’t, so we’re all fucked forever, amen.” Great. Awesome. Thanks.
If I wanted to hear that I’d, you know, be living my life in the world, not reading a damn book.
This is what that ending could have said: both Ames and young Boughton grew up in the shadows of great men, men lauded by their communities. Ames had his grandfather, whose unrelenting vision of divine justice both built him into the towering figure he was, and destroyed him when the world failed to follow him into the flames. Boughton had his dad, who people keep calling a saint so, okay, I guess he must be a good guy, though we don’t see much of his tenderness the way we see Ames’. (Except maybe when he trots the name of the child out, surprising Ames. Maybe there.) But Ames was able to deal with growing up in that shadow because, maybe, he saw what it cost the generation between them to reject it. He saw how it wrecked his father to see how much he had harmed his grandfather. Boughton doesn’t have that space, sure — it’s only him and then his dad, and it’s the son doing the wrecking — but Ames could have helped. He’s seen all sides of this; he could have helped. Tried to. Said something.
Here is another thing that ending could have said: Ames held the power he did, both in his community and, via word of mouth, as far away as Memphis, because of his grandfather. His grandfather who, while clear of mind in his younger days, descended, visibly (and so infuriatingly to me, upon encountering it) into a kind of feverish religious dementia that nevertheless strengthened his image and fed into it the kind of reverence that made the Ames name recognizable as a bulwark of the abolitionist movement, years after its end. What I’m saying is that the very disease that made me fling the book down in frustration is what enabled the youngest Ames to occupy the spot in the world he did. The last gift, of sorts, of his grandfather.
And he wastes it. You don’t waste that, fuckwit. You loved him. He’s dead. He gave you his name and, thanks to him, your name means something to people you’ve never even met. And you wasted that gift.
And now, then, what is the point of my marking all those beautiful passages of his, of mourning him, when he just kind of shrugged and rolled over and died in the end? You had one job. And you could have laid it aside but no, no, you insisted on continuing to do your work, to try and lead people toward something like a better understanding of the world and their place in it. But when, admittedly, an asshole comes to you in his hour of need, you mumble about not knowing, and then, without even asking yourself if it would have worked out, you let him go. Send him off into misery. Congrats! That one job you had? You blew it.
I don’t think I’m supposed to be having this reaction. I think we are supposed to consider Ames as having made the best of a bad situation. But that’s settling. This is all he said:
“But I can’t give you any assurances about this, one way or the other. I’d hate to be wrong. You’ll have to let me reflect on it.”
“He said, “You have influence here.”
I said that might be true, but I couldn’t promise to live long enough to make much use of it. I mentioned my heart.
Oh come on. You could have at least tried.
Then, while preaching, Ames finds himself thinking:
The fact was, standing there, I wished there were grounds for my old dread. That amazed me. I felt as if I’d have bequeathed him wife and child if I could to supply the loss of his own.
This too-late regret is not enough. It does nothing. It helps no one, not even Ames. And he doesn’t writhe in it long enough for poetic justice, either, since shortly thereafter he goes home and dies. This guy, then, whom we (I) have been brought to love over some 200 pages, throws in the towel and goes back on every beautiful thing he said. What a waste.
If we were meant to over-identify with him, and then to feel slapped in the face by his impotence and thus moved to be move active in the world in precisely the way he was not, that would be one thing. But I kind of feel like that’s just me. That I willfully smudged the lines between myself and this guy because it felt good and eloquent, and like I could imagine being able to say things I won’t be able to, when I’m old. But that most people won’t have had cause to slam the book down in fury when dementia raises its head within its pages, or to feel chastened by the tenderness Ames brings to the observation of his grandfather that was, perhaps, lacking in the reader.
You might wonder about my pastoral discretion, writing all this out. Well, on one hand it is the way I have of considering things. On the other hand, he is a man about whom you may never hear one good word, and I just don’t know another way to let you see the beauty there is in him.
That’s about Young Boughton. But it’s not enough. Sure, huzzah, it turns out Young Boughton is still a jackass but was not, in fact, trying to replace you as husband and father. But you calling him beautiful, in thought or in deed, is not enough. When would it ever be enough? You acknowledging to yourself to this person you’ve disliked his entire life — “that is not my child!” — is not in fact all bad, is not enough.
And I think we’re supposed to feel like it is. Or like “welp, the world didn’t allow interracial marriage back then so, tough luck, I guess it was out of his hands.” Fuck that. He didn’t say one damn word. He knew he was respected enough for his words to matter and he said nothing. That’s not beautiful, or grand. That’s cowardice. Not even that — he was too secure in his position even to have cause for fear. He was just plain lazy.
How are we supposed to applaud that? Or not look at everything we applauded earlier, and bookmarked and underlined, and think “well, fuck?”
How will you ever find justice if you won’t get off your ass and look for it?
And is he saying he outlasted his sense of grievance? Because if he is, he’s lying. If he really forgave that boy he would have done something. Anything. And he didn’t. Not one thing.
Edit: Yes, I am aware of the hypocrisy in lambasting a guy for doing nothing when more or less implying that the whole reason I was sitting reading this book was to look away from the ugliness of the world for a minute (versus, say, trying to fix anything). And that someone’s well-meant “yes but you’re allowed that” is no less applicable to Ames.
And also that apparently Jack Boughton is an alcoholic? Which is written in the advertisement for Home on that last page, which advertisement I never read despite noting all those page numbers around it. So, okay, if that’s true then maybe that’s why Ames didn’t do anything to help him? Because Della and their son would be better off without him? But if that was Ames’ thinking, shouldn’t he have noted as much in this letter to his own son? Because without clarifying that it still just looks like he didn’t bother helping because, like he said in a passage I took a picture of a few posts back, he can’t imagine how he’d ever forgive young Boughton. And that’s so frustrating, because as baleful as I am when wronged, I blurred the lines between myself and this character because I thought he was better than me, and he’s being just as selfish here as I would be, and that sucks.
Be better, dammit.