by cheri block
When Scotty McLennan assigned Jane Smiley’s novella Good Will as part of the curricula for his class The Meaning of Life: A Spiritual and Moral Inquiry Through Literature, I had never heard of the book.
I began reading it one afternoon after balancing my checkbook, an enjoyable exercise that satisfies my need for order (and balance..) And I thought I needed order to stave off anxiety!
Few characters have gotten under my skin as Smiley’s Bob Miller did. I read the text twice to make sure I hadn’t misjudged the guy.
Did he live a real life? Here’s my hit. I’ve removed page references for smoother reading.
What About Bob? *
In his famous treatise to life among the Cypripedium, Walden, Henry Thoreau echoed the mantras of many New World explorers when he wrote “ I went to the woods because I wished to live deliberately, to front only the essential facts of life, and see if I could not learn what it had to teach, and not, when I came to die, discover that I had not lived.” Perhaps the protagonist/antagonist in Jane Smiley’s Good Will, Bob Miller, had taken a dog-eared copy of Walden to Vietnam as a sort of holy book carried close to his heart, reminding him of a peaceful, isolated life when he returned. Or perhaps it was his self-help book—the remedy to that “…frustrated yearning” which filled him at all stages of his life—all until he went to the woods with his wife Liz. While there, like Mr. Thoreau, Bob Miller itemizes how he spends his money down to the penny, catalogues when seeds sprout from one year to the next, and we can assume, would return tools in better condition than when they were borrowed. The difference between Henry Thoreau and Bob Miller is that Thoreau lived a real life. We all know HDT lived simply, reflected, set millions of 60’s high school students free from the obscenity of materialism, became intimate with the flora and the fauna, and one could make the case that he was a mensch. What about Bob? Was he living a real life?
It would seem logical that most people like the Millers, who choose to live in nature outside the community, do so because they value simplicity and a shared familial intimacy away from modern distraction. Are they living a simple life? Are they intimate with each other? From the onset, Smiley contrasts appearance with reality, perception with truth. The interview with journalist Tina Morrissey, who is writing a book that features innovative gardeners, exposes the way Bob Miller’s mind operates. In a few pages, we learn that he rejects all things modern—money and schools for example—in favor of barter system and home schooling. It sounds good, especially when we consider the price of goods and the weak public school systems today. But we must see the Miller farm for the complex organism that it is, led by what today’s psychologists might label an obsessive-compulsive and narcissistic father. Bob’s life is anything but simple, a point Smiley makes with Bob’s over-analysis and perfectionism. And what about shared familial intimacy? When only a damaged chapter of the book arrives at the Miller postal box, Morrissey’s characterization of the Miller family may be Smiley’s own polemic against controlling parents who do not understand that to live a real life and raise healthy children, they must allow for some freedom in the grey area and let go of their rigid control. The grey area does not exist in Bob’s black and white world of right and wrong. Ironically, it is his neighbor Dr. Lydia Harris, a black woman whose rich life of work, color, modern conveniences, and laughter, undoes Bob’s hermetically sealed weird world with its widgets and homemade cane chairs. In the end, the Miller’s pony Sparkle—symbolic of the joy of letting go, intimacy, the natural world, and their son Tommy’s hopes, drowns in an icy lake and Tommy then burns the Harris home to the ground to get even with his Dad.
Unlike Ivan Ilych, Bob Miller did spend an inordinate amount of time evaluating and reflecting upon his life experience, but when all is said and done, what type of life is it?
In placing him next to my criteria for living a real life, he seems to display a number of admirable traits, but in the end, his shortcomings override his strengths. Smiley does this by opening with a well-engineered sleight of hand, introducing us to a man whom we observe to be an insightful and creative, albeit quirky, individual. Very quickly, perhaps within a short span of five pages, his stream of conscientiousness narration reveals the mind of an oddball—a selfish, smug, insecure survivalist who will sacrifice his son’s well being for individually nicked carrot seeds. We realize at the end that unlike Thoreau, Bob’s life in the woods has failed and though they both end up as “…sojourners [back] in civilized life…” after their grand experiments in “fronting only the essentials …” Bob Miller is one of those “mass of men who lead lives of quiet desperation.”
Should he be faulted for his efforts to design the best life he can literally make for his family? He values hard work, education, simplicity, and family time. Or does he? He loves his wife and his son, but as the story unfolds, he doesn’t listen to wife Liz or son Tommy, rejecting her need for organized religion and Tommy’s desire for satellite television. And yet, his willingness to share his fears and machinations with the reader contributes to our hopes that the life he is creating will be realized in a healthy marriage and well-adjusted child.
The rest of the story has not been written, but at the conclusion of the novella—with his son a recovering arsonist, his farm sold, and his life in denial “…loitering at the bottom of the ladder…” Bob shows almost no personal growth or meaningful reflection other than his recalcitrant compartmentalization of the shattered pieces of his life. Bob fails miserably to live a real life. It is no accident that in his new urban life, Smiley sets him down in a biotechnology center—the hub of progress and change—and has him setting “…concrete forms…” for minimum wage, a perfect complement to his resistance to change, his comfort with the concrete, and his thrifty way of life.
- With appreciation to Touchstone Pictures and Bill Murray.