“Jack” is a love story…sort of. The time is uncertain, post-World War II, and Jack is living in St. Louis, recently released from prison. He meets Della, and they fall in love.
Jack has just been released from prison and is wearing a dark suit. He is walking around St. Louis on a rainy, windy day and steals the umbrella from a man asleep on a park bench. He sees a woman drop her papers and books and he helps her retrieve them. The woman, Della, assumes he is a reverend and she invites him to tea. They have a lively conversation, both of them passionate about literature, poetry and theology. Della shows him a book of poetry signed by Paul Dunbar that had belonged to her grandmother. Jack steals it.
Jack cannot stop thinking about Della. He invites her to dinner and then abandons her at the restaurant. They unintentionally reconnect at night in a cemetery, where they are both locked in. Sounds like a simple, if not quirky, love story. But there are complications.
The first complication is that Della is black, Jack is white and their relationship is illegal. The second complication is that Della is a teacher in a black high school where improper behavior will cause her to lose her job. Another complication is that Jack is something of a grifter and a thief, with very few prospects. And finally, Della’s family is less than thrilled about the relationship.
Della’s father is a highly regarded Bishop in the Methodist Church in Memphis. Jack’s father is a highly regarded Presbyterian minister in Gilead, Iowa. Most of the book addresses the racial issues of the times, the impact of religion and family on both of them and Jack’s introspection about his nature, his family and this relationship.
We learn that as a child, Jack was constantly in trouble, and had a child out of wedlock, for whom he took no responsibility. Jack enrolled in college and allowed his brother Teddy to take his classes. Jack left his hometown to give his family some distance and moved to St. Louis. His brother Teddy periodically travels to St. Louis and leaves money for Jack at his rooming house.
Throughout the book Jack makes efforts to improve himself. He gets a steady job (albeit teaching dance) and tries to stay sober. He begins to attend a black Baptist church and develops a relationship with the Pastor Samuel Hutchins. Their conversations are fascinating and soul searching. He tells the pastor that “’Forgiveness scares me. It seems like a kind of antidote to regret, and there are things I haven’t regretted sufficiently.’”
He has boundless intellectual curiosity and spends a great deal of time at the library, where the librarian always has a sandwich for him. Of course he steals library books, always with the intent to return them.
Jack is constantly pondering his impulses to steal and his desire, and yet inability, to do no harm. He knows that his love for Della is the antithesis of do no harm but he is unable to walk away from her. And she does not want him to. “If he were an honorable man, he’d have left her alone.”
Della’s family learns of the relationship and throughout the book various members of Della’s family arrive in St. Louis to try to talk sense into Della and to specifically ask Jack to stay away from her. Nothing works. The novel ends with her abandoning her family for him and a very uncertain future.
“Jack” is deeply introspective, thoughtful and thought provoking. It addresses serious philosophical issues of character, race, religion, family, literature and human nature. The depth of discussion is impossible to capture in a review but the novel is a very worthwhile read, particularly if you enjoy being piqued about the grander nature of things. You can reserve this novel at the Cuyahoga County Public Library by clicking here.