Saturday, January 09, 2010

Comedy, Fairy Tale, Tragedy: My Favorite Fiction

(Reflection on The Book of Bebb, omnibus of four novels by Frederick Buechner. I wrote this in 2006.)

Reading the last words of The Book of Bebb, I immediately turned back 530 pages to start over. I didn't want to leave the world of that book, its places, its characters, and its author's way of looking at the world I live in. That was around 1987. I've reread the book two or three times since. What a pleasure it's been to revisit it again to write about it here.
I've scanned some blogs and discovered that I'm not the only one who feels this way. Bloggers swear that Bebb is a novel unlike any other, and a favorite. Here's a sample:
The Bebb books are hard to categorize. I always find myself describing them as hilarious and then go on to recount a plot that inevitably sounds terribly sad. So let me just avoid the whole thing this time and say that these are wonderful books and you'll live a much happier and richer life if you read them! (Ian Eastman, "I.E." at Blogspot, May 16, 2004)
The Story of the Story of Bebb
Like any great book, it tells a good story. All four novels developed from a single news item that Buechner spotted about a con man who sold phony credentials to make "clergy" of anyone who wanted to declare tax exempt status. Buechner imagined this scoundrel, called him Leo Bebb, and created a rootless free-lance writer named Antonio Parr to track him down intending to write an exposé. As Buechner describes in his foreword to the 1984 edition, the characters ran away with the novel. He had intended Bebb to be a villain, but the reality of that character became much more complex. And Antonio, like Raymond Chandler's detective Marlowe, becomes the perfect vehicle to take us into Bebb's territory.
The more Buechner wrote, the more he wanted to see what would happen next, and each novel carries the seeds of the next. LION COUNTRY begins as Antonio's investigation of Bebb, and ends with him absorbed into the family by marriage to Bebb's daughter. OPEN HEART follows Bebb out west to a new ministry among a very wealthy Indian tribe, and enlarges Antonio's family by the adoption of two sons (nephews of his late sister Miriam). In LOVE FEAST, crisis hits Antonio's marriage while Bebb enjoys his greatest success as a cause célebre taking the lead of a student protest movement at Princeton. TREASURE HUNT opens with a recorded message from Bebb, who has died. But by now the cast of characters, familiar to us as Dorothy, Scarecrow, et. al., load up a car and head to find Bebb's roots in North Carolina, guided by an elderly believer in reincarnation who hopes to find Bebb newborn as an infant.
Everyone likes a good story, but fiction can offer so much more. A great novel presents distinctive characters and makes us care about them. The writing conjures places we've never been, or makes familiar places new to us. The author expresses insights that we've never heard expressed, but they strike us immediately as true. There's also a texture to the best writing -- layers that tell us what's going on under the surface of the action, tying to other things in the novel, and tying the action also to the world outside the novel (history, myths, science, art), so that we're not just watching the action, we're immersed in it -- and, even better, our daily lives get worked into that texture during the days that we're reading in the book. Finally, there's a tone to the best writing that expresses its author's joy in its creation, and respect, if not love, for even the least of the characters.
On all these counts, Frederick Buechner's Book of Bebb gets five stars.
Cast of Voices
Leo Bebb reconciles elements of Norman Vincent Peale, used car salesman, and Martin Luther. He describes everything that happens in his life as part of God's universal plan, and even when he's down, he's orating.
Lucille, in sunglasses, sundress, with a Vodka Tropicana clutched at the end of a scrawny bare arm, makes her observations short and bitter, and endears herself to us. (A highlight: Her written testimony and a letter to Jesus.)
Miriam, near death when we meet her early in the first book, is the twin sister who haunts Antonio throughout the four novels. Her two sons come in a complementary set, one smooth, pink, small, the other rough, dark, and a brute -- reminiscent of Jacob and Esau. Unable to move, with no future to plan, she says only penetrating things about the way things are now.
Sharon, Bebb's daughter, develops from outspoken young woman to independent responsible adult, through marriage and motherhood. Easy, breezy way of speaking, foul-mouthed, slangy -- and honest.
Golden - an alien, maybe, shaped like a round wafer, and a relief every time we see him.
Brownie, frail, in his sweat-stained Hawaiian shirts, and gargling with aftershave, he's relentlessly sad in demeanor, and relentlessly sunny in statements.
Gertrude Conover, the elderly "theosophist" spends her fortune to realize Bebb's craziest dream.
Herman Redpath, irascible Indian patriarch, and his "joking cousin" John Turtle.
Just writing their names conjures scenes and feelings.
New Places, Places New
Bebb says, "In just a single life there's so many worlds that a man's days stretch out like the Milky Way" (207). In notes I made on the book flaps, I'm reminded that some characters take a European tour. A trip to Paris might be a highlight in some fiction. But it isn't really glamorous or exciting "places" that make a difference in a book, but the worlds that the author creates for us.
So, years later, I carry with me impressions of sordid and ugly places in which Buechner found vitality, if not a kind of beauty. There's ticky-tacky Armadillo, Florida and a certain broken-down Edwardian home there. There's a grimy Manhattan coffee shop next to the entrance down to a subway where the stairs reek of urine. Under that, we learn later, there is "elevator territory," a netherworld that Buechner makes plausible. We visit the arid Red Path Ranch in Texas, and it somehow becomes a retreat for refreshment during the course of the four novels. There's a memorable scene in the over-the-top banquet hall at "Revonoc," home of loopy and generous Gertrude Conover. Finally, Buechner takes us off-road near Spartanburg, SC, to "the UFOrium," one of those unattractive tourist attractions.
Places like these are everywhere I go in Cobb County, Georgia, so I'm often reminded not to presume to think I know a place by its appearance.
When I contacted blogger Ian Eastman for permission to quote him here, he emailed this response: "My favorite thing about reading is the moment when I come across that One Perfect Line, full of meaning and written so beautifully that I have to read it over again solely for the sheer enjoyment of language. Frederick Buechner has the gift of writing those kinds of lines over and over again throughout a whole book. That's what keeps me coming back for more!"
Buechner has written collections of insights, such as his Alphabet of Grace and Wishful Thinking: A Theological ABC. But this is a novel, and the insights are worked into particular situations. For example, during a lull in the mounting crisis of his marriage, Antonio lets his wife drive while he rests in contented silence. He comments to the reader, "I have a feeling it's the in-between times, the times that narratives like this leave out and that the memory in general loses track of, which are the times when souls are saved or lost" (181). He dreams of his late sister Miriam and observes something about our dreams of the dead that has since proven to be true in my own experience: "They don't even stop when you speak to them, just look back at you..." (189). Here are a few isolated pearls, notated during my reading of an especially dramatic scene out of the four novels:
I sometimes think that all the major dramas of my life have taken place in kitchens, and maybe that's because in kitchens there's always something else to fall back on if the going gets tough, like cooking or eating or doing the dishes. And maybe that's the real drama after all -- just keeping yourself alive day after day and cleaning up afterwards (363).
More even than to keep the weather out, the purpose of a house is to keep emptiness out (376).
Keeping too sharp an eye on your own life can precipitate you prematurely into that geriatric state where life itself becomes a kind of spectator sport in which there is nothing much left either to win or to lose that greatly matters (377).
But more often Buechner's insights are like punchlines of jokes, and you can't "get them" unless you've "been there." I've made an index of such insights, and provide this sampling (with page numbers from the 1984 edition):
  • 228, 298, 332, 336, 353, 361 Variations and explorations of the line from the Hebrew, "we are all strangers and pilgrims on this earth" and on 306, there's Bebb's sermon on homesickness
  • 507 - There's no path that doesn't lead to Heaven
  • 499 We don't know the past any better than we know the future
  • 268 The point "that all authors make," that events have shape, and its opposite, that Antonio's A-shaped free-form sculpture from scrap metal and wood develops meanings without pre-conceived intention (142)
  • 8 Preparing to die is compared to preparing to give birth
  • 147 Bebb's parable of sin as the unharvested peaches fallen in the orchards of Spartanburg that grow so sweet that they make you sick. He concludes, "Sin is life wasted."
  • 143 "Antonio," Bebb said. "I believe everything. . . [and it's hard]."
  • 353 "You can't stay mad when you start thinking things like that. Once you commence noticing the lines a man's got round his eyes and mouth and think about the hopeful way his folks gave a special name to him when he was first born into this world, you might as well give up."
  • At the climax of the sharpest scene in the book (the only one that might qualify as a plot twist -- because Antonio certainly doesn't see it coming -- so I'll be circumspect about who, what, when, and where), when a character wants to know how to atone so that it will be as if he'd never hurt Antonio, Antonio wisely says, without thinking, that the offender can't do that -- but Antonio can.

Bebb, scoundrel as he is, gives whole sermons that catch the attention, always reversing what you think you know. The most elaborate of these is based on a word the "preachers aren't even supposed to know," s***, and he improvises this sermon in response to a bitter atheist historian named Virgil Roebuck [that's the man of the "hopeful" name in the last quote above, Virgil -- Dante's guide to the underworld, the wise unbeliever] who develops his own anti-sermon about the damage done to humanity by religion and religious people (351), calling religion "s***." Bebb turns it around on Roebuck, saying that he's touched on only a millionth of what's been bad in the world by sticking just to the "religious s***." It's that in us that makes us all brothers, and it's mere waste unless it's used to help seeds to grow -- and that's where you're going to find God working, right in the center of it.
Layers on Layers
Buechner recycles the same images or motifs, never quite the same way twice, until events from one part of the story become analogies for appreciating other parts. For example:
We keep re-imagining one moment in Bebb's life for which he was jailed, and that moment grows from being a repulsive image to being pathetic, to becoming a sign of something good expressed in the wrong way.
We visit "Lion Country" park once in the first novel, where tourists watch wild animals from the safety of motor vehicles, but that idea of being spectators who shut themselves away from real life keeps popping up in the four books. (Naturally, Bebb gets out of the car!)
Space aliens are part of the texture of this book -- literally living in a layer under our world, attainable by elevator, helping us like angels, if we can believe Bebb. His wife Lucille says often, "Sometimes I think he's a space alien himself."
There's a motif of significant infants.
Many times, we read about some kind of descent to the land of the dead, in dreams, in literature, in an imagined opera.
There's the motif of the shape "A." Like Antonio's A-shaped artwork, it suggests meaning without necessarily being intended in one way. I wonder if it's also the image of Alpha, in a book full of new beginnings. Of course, "Alpha" always goes with "Omega," and we certainly see as we read that ends of things grow from their beginnings -- in ways that Buechner himself hadn't planned.
Besides these, Buechner works outside references into the texture of his story. For those like Antonio who've studied literature, there are developments related to the Apocrypha, King Lear, Alice in Wonderland, The Scarlet Letter, Proust, Cocteau, the gospel parable of the wedding banquet, Donne, The Song of Solomon. From pop culture, Antonio refers to an old detective series from radio dramas, comic strips, and a song I don't know, "Chantilly Lace," by the late-Fifties singer known as the Big Bopper.
Most remarkable, there are some extravagant stories-within-stories that become a sort of private mythology in the novels, changing the way we see characters, and maybe changing the way we see the world.
  • Antonio imagines Jesus in the underworld as a grand opera.
  • Antonio relays Lucille's account of Bebb's story of what happens when the Indian patriarch Herman Redpath goes to the Indian afterlife -- all in response to a bizarre event at the funeral, when the tribe's "joking cousin" (a designated trickster that all tribes have, if Buechner didn't just make it up -- don't quote me) urinates in his grandfather's open coffin.
  • A long detour during which Antonio's high school seniors work their way through a scene in King Lear.
  • The story of the death and resurrection of Brownie (Bebb's gentle, ridiculous, pathetic assistant who gargles with cologne -- appropriate, as his glosses on scripture turn Jesus's hard sayings into comforting bromides).
  • Bebb's exposition of the theory of Silvers and Goldens, aliens who inhabit our world, and his own visit to Mr. Golden's layer beneath the subways.
  • Gertrude Conover's elaborate memories of her ancient previous life when she was Pharaoh's daughter and had an affair with Bebb when he was a priest of the Pharaoh, who turns out to be none other than Calloway, her sweet old black yardman.
  • As narrator, Antonio sometimes plays the game, "What if?" and carries his musings to chapter-long stories of what might have happened if he had chosen differently -- and even those potential stories exert influence on later events.
Feast, Heart, and Treasure
As Mr. Eastman pointed out, it's a joy and a lot of laughs to read these books, but a summary sounds like tragedy. By the end, we've read about adultery, guilt, infanticide, suicide, lives wasted in envy or regret, violent death, death by painful terminal illness, the debilitation of old age. Buechner himself developed in one book a theory of how Scripture can be read as Fairy Tale, Comedy, and Tragedy. It's natural that his own novel would mix comedy, tragedy, and the fairy tale elements of aliens and Indian spirits.
In its abundance of images, both elaborate and incidental, and its abundance of memorable and distinctive characters, this book is a feast. In Buechner's own loving portrayal of these characters, I grow attached to them. Even the sedentary and taciturn Lucille Bebb, always sipping her vodka tropicanas and never moving, becomes someone I miss when she suddenly disappears. When I've encountered people who've shared the experience of reading these books, just swapping names was a satisfying form of communication.
- 8 April 2006


Susan said...

I agree-- wonderful book(s). I love the theme of inviting strangers to the feast, which crops up in other Buechner books. One thing I think is very impressive about his writing is the sense of place. The town of Armadillo is, in fact, very much like the small, off-the-beaten path Florida town, interior part of south-central FL. I read somewhere that Buechner winters at either Hobe Sound or Singer Island--whatever. And he certainly captures this area in "The Storm." In re-reading this not too long ago I was struck by how specific the time and place are, but how much it has the fairly tale feel. It doesn't start with "once upon a time" but it could. And Bebb has the same feel-- real and fairy tale at the same time. Quite an achievement!

Ian Eastman said...

Mr. Smoot,

What a great reminiscence on the Book of Bebb. It makes me want to pull my copy off the shelf and read it again!