Preachers get cheated in American fiction. Hawthorne wrote about them, and so did Faulkner, Sinclair Lewis and J. F. Powers. But as anyone who grows up in a clergyman's home can attest, most laymen, writers included, shy away from men and women of the cloth. A minister or a priest or a rabbi may be important in a community's life and still live in a kind of exile. With that as her premise, Marilynne Robinson fashions a novel so strangely beguiling that it fully justifies the long wait since "Housekeeping," her unforgettable 1981 debut.

"Gilead" is an epistolary autobiography written by the Rev. John Ames to his son in 1956; the father, dying of heart disease, is 77 and the boy is 6. A Congregationalist minister in fictional Gilead, Iowa, Ames is a bachelor until late in life and a loner even then. His grandfather was a gun-toting abolitionist who ran with John Brown. His father was a pacifist. Ames himself is, well, somewhat more equivocal than either. How to act, when to intercede, when to stand back--these are his abiding questions.

When the prodigal son of another local minister comes home, Ames discovers that this young man harbors a secret. Ames tries to help, but his good intentions mire him in the same intractable problems of race--America's original sin--that ensnared his grandfather. "What you must see here is just an old man struggling with the difficulty of understanding what it is he's struggling with."

Ames is not so much confused as in conflict with himself. Complicated, smart, affectionate, funny, he is an old man in love with a young wife, a Calvinist in love with the physical world: "In Eternity ... I believe, all that has passed here will be the epic of the universe, the ballad they sing in the streets." Sidestepping all the pat nostrums of "faith-based initiatives" and "family values," Robinson delivers a book that never settles for easy answers. Like Jacob, Ames wrestles with the Angel of the Lord, not just for one night but all his life. The blessing he seeks is clarity, and it is no small irony that we sympathize with him precisely because his creator has made his plight so plain to us. "For me," he writes, "writing has always felt like praying ... You feel that you are with someone." Or you do when the writing is as wonderful as it gets in this story. Good novels about spiritual life are rare. This is one of the best.