“Notes in the Margin (Part V),” by Peter Orner

Fiction faculty member Peter Orner, along with 2020 fiction graduate Alberto Reyes Morgan, recently discussed “Luvina,” by Juan Rulfo, on Texas Public Radio.

Orner also recently wrote for The Believer. Read an excerpt of “Notes in the Margin (Part V)” below:

Notes in the Margin (Part V)


It’s another scene at the kitchen table in a book of kitchen-table scenes. Morning after morning, night after night, the three of them gather at the kitchen table. I don’t have the novel here. It’s January 2020 and I’m on a bus in New Hampshire, heading home after a funeral. 

Some books you don’t need to hold to read. 

Marilynne Robinson’s Home. A reader might be forgiven if the kitchen scenes jumble in memory. But the one I am thinking of is unusual because it breaks a certain established pattern and it’s only, if I remember, fifty or sixty pages into the novel. Glory, her brother Jack, and their father, Reverend Boughton, are all at the kitchen table in Gilead. Jack hasn’t been home very long. Maybe a week at this point. 

Yet after twenty years (the amount of time Ulysses was away from Ithaca), heis, finally, home. Jack is no Ulysses. He’s been an ordinary failure, mostly down in St. Louis. I’m not sure calling him “prodigal” would be accurate. In my dim recollection of the parable, the prodigal son squanders his inheritance. Though it depends on how you define inheritance: it’s clear that Jack doesn’t have much to squander, at least in a material sense. Brains and charisma, sure, but these he’s still got, even in his current ragged state. 

Jack is someone—there are so many—who, once he stumbled, wasn’t able to stop falling down. Glory, too, has limped home. She hasn’t done such a bang-up job out in this misnomer of a real world, either. They’re a family of eight children. The other six are scattered throughout the Midwest, enjoying varying degrees of prosperity. They’ve got kids, jobs, busy lives. Teddy’s a doctor. The others, I forget, but they’re doing better than all right. Glory, though a dedicated teacher, is childless. Her engagement has fallen through. The guy turned out to be a cad. We’re in Iowa during the Eisenhower administration. It makes sense, a spinster daughter returning home to care for her aging father. 

So we know why Glory’s come back. But what about Jack? Glory and Jack’s mother died a few years earlier. On the long list of ways in which Jack’s let down the family: he didn’t turn up at her funeral. I can understand it. A funeral’s a tough way to make a reentrance. But why has he now reappeared in Gilead? And after all these years? I’m not sure we ever get an entirely straight answer, and for this I’m grateful. I wonder if there just comes a time, in all our lives, when we wash up at the only door that will open to us. 

Read the piece in its entirety here: https://believermag.com/notes-in-the-margin-part-v/