Frederick Buechner Essay - Critical Essays

Buechner, (Carl) Frederick (Vol. 6)

Buechner, (Carl) Frederick 1926–

Buechner, an ordained Presbyterian clergyman, is an American Christian novelist, poet, and the author of two collections of sermons and an autobiography. His principal themes are the isolation of the individual and the existence of grace. Lion Country and its sequel, Open Heart, are religious parody of a high order and are usually considered his finest work. (See also Contemporary Authors, Vols. 13-16, rev. ed.)

["Love Feast"] is Mr. Buechner's third novel about the Southern preacher Leo Bebb. The first four chapters introduce the action: Bebb and his family have returned from a European vacation; the evangelical enterprise known as Open Heart has burned to the ground; the marriage of Bebb's daughter, Sharon, and Antonio Parr is still under strain; and Bebb has been inspired to lead an orgiastic Love Feast at Princeton University. But the book is not so much a story as a monologue, or set of monologues, with Antonio's voice setting an alternately whimsical and reverential tone, occasionally interrupted by Bebb's cheap salesmanship. The book is uneven, yet it has quite a few effective gags as well as some moments of genuine feeling. Mr. Buechner seems to be an author whose religious sentiment encompasses even the most common and most tawdry. (pp. 188-89)

The New York (© 1974 by The New Yorker Magazine, Inc.), October 21, 1974.

Herewith ends the tri-part saga of Leo Bebb—"Evangelist, Founder of the Church of Holy Love, Inc., and of the Open Heart Church, International President of Gospel Faith College, which offered ordination through the mail ('Put yourself on God's payroll—start working for Jesus NOW'), ex Bible salesman, ex con…" Love Feast is the third, and the best, of Frederick Buechner's Leo Bebb novels, and in its closing pages Bebb goes to his heavenly reward; it's unfortunate that he must depart, but he certainly leaves in entertaining fashion.

Buechner, himself a minister, writes about matters theological with a fine satiric touch and a keen appreciation of human foibles. His novels are exceedingly funny, but they are given great depth by Buechner's genuine affection and compassion for his characters. That is expecially true of Love Feast, in which Buechner has marvelous fun with Bebb's amiable conniving but in which he also portrays with complexity and feeling the temporarily disintegrated marriage of Bebb's daughter and son-in-law.

It helps to have read the first two Bebb novels, Lion Country and Open Heart, but it is not necessary. Indeed, one senses that Buechner did not deliberately set out to write a trilogy, but that Bebb captured his fancy and would not let him go. Whatever the case, the pleasure is ours.

In Love Feast Bebb is well advanced in years but has lost none of his eye for the theological main chance. His religion is not formal but visceral, and if from time to time he makes a buck in the course of praising the Lord, so much the better. He is something between a con man and a saint, and he is equally believable in both roles….

Life is … what Buechner is writing about. Beneath all the antics of Leo Bebb and those who surround him there is a continuing celebration of life and the interrelation of lives. Buechner's people may at first glance seem caricatures, but their robustness is merely humanity magnified. Leo Bebb goes out triumphantly, and so does the Bebb trilogy.

Jonathan Yardley, "On God's Payroll," in Book World—The Washington Post (© The Washington Post), November 3, 1974, p. 2.

Frederick Buechner's Love Feast is the third and last of his wonderful series about Leo Bebb, itinerant minister of the Gospel, savior of Herman Redpath, oil-rich Indian, founder of the Church of Holy Love, of Open Heart in Connecticut, and, in this novel, of Love Feasts in Princeton. The word about Bebb is simple—he lights up every page on which he appears, making each one a joy to read and to anticipate, and of all the characters in American literature, only Hemingway's Bill Gorton rivals him in that respect. (p. 633)

In Love Feast Buechner is working less hard than in Lion Country and Open Heart to make Bebb impenetrable, a man who might or might not be a fraud; here all stops are out, Bebb's preaching pours forth in unchecked confidence, the language of Jesus his so securely that what Bebb thinks no longer really matters all that much. (p. 634)

The rest of Love Feast, the part concerning the death and rebirth of the narrator, Antonio, is good in places, but in general seems to me forced and pallid beside Bebb's Love Feasts. In Lion Country Antonio is pretty much just there to observe, in Open Heart he moves nicely into the story, in Love Feast he is suddenly asked to become a full-fledged human being, which is a terrible fate for someone born to be a comic seeing eye. It's quite clear to Buechner that Bebb himself is too splashy and brilliant to occupy the entire stage, but he is much better, especially in Open Heart, surrounding him with his alcoholic and suicidal wife and his sad and funny daughter, and the wonderful Indians of the Church of Holy Love, than he is asking Antonio to play a role equal in importance to Bebb. In Love Feast, furthermore, the daughter, Sharon, plays a key role in the lives of both Bebb and Antonio, yet she herself is barely allowed to appear, though she is just fine when she does. This last book, considered as a whole, then, seems the least satisfactory of the three. On the other hand, Bebb is never better than here, sad and moving as well as funny and bracing and capable of creating worthy belief even as he fails to make a life, to connect with others, to save himself in this world. As a sequence, Buechner's Bebb novels may not quite come off, but they should prove almost indefinitely rereadable, and I hope they become part of our permanent literature, always staying in print and getting taught and being used as standards of comparison and judgment. There isn't a badly turned sentence in any of them, and they add to our store of what is possible, they make life richer. (p. 635)

Roger Sale, in The Hudson Review (copyright © 1974 by The Hudson Review, Inc.; reprinted by permission), Vol. XXVII, No. 4, Winter, 1974–75.

Love Feast, the third volume of a trilogy, completes a process of self-recognition and revelation for Buechner. Its relationship to the earlier books, Lion Country and Open Heart, is paradoxical, for in those books the precision of language, the strength, inventiveness and whimsy of character, and the story itself promised a resolution Buechner doesn't manage gracefully in Love Feast. But it is still a novel of contemporary wit and elegance, full of small truths and unexpected mysteries. As Yeats said, out of our quarrels with ourselves comes poetry. (p. 27)

Lion Country introduced the story of faith and dreams and the mystery of things and is, perhaps, the most forthright volume of the trilogy. Love Feast is a simpler tale, shifting attention from the jazz cacaphony of the city and magic light of the South to a more relaxed suburban setting, peopled by those we might expect to meet in Princeton or Connecticut. Of course the incongruities Buechner notes in the characters of the first books still crop up in Love Feast. (pp. 27-8)

Buechner's faith seems as stark and mysteriously natural as the desert. No dogma confines his writing, no credo fixes his characters for judgment. He claims to be a part-time Christian, yet to him the messages of Christ show themselves often, even in peculiar, mundane circumstances. In fact Buechner's sense of God and Christian teachings has a vigorous and fanciful quality, born of the Testaments and a conviction that "the language of God is metaphor" and that religion must be learned through story.

It is not surprising, then, that Love Feast closes artificially, when we no longer expect resolution…. [We] can forgive Buechner the neatness of the history only because of the charm of his final report. Instead of leaving us a puzzle with many combinations, Buechner has pieced the story together for the sake of form….

Love Feast, if not a major work, finishes a provocative and often forceful trilogy. Buechner is a deeply serious man who understands how to cajole believers and non-believers alike. He is a craftsman, not a sage, using humor and modest conviction above all his tools. His preference for change and hope in the experience of his characters—aspects of the faith he shares through many details of story—is substantially convincing. (p. 28)

Lincoln Caplan, in The New Republic (reprinted by permission of The New Republic; © 1975 by The New Republic, Inc.), January 25, 1975.