Frederick Buechner Essay - Buechner, (Carl) Frederick (Vol. 9)

Buechner, (Carl) Frederick (Vol. 9)

Buechner, (Carl) Frederick 1926–

An American poet, novelist, sermonizer, and ordained Presbyterian minister, Buechner writes with humor, wit, and deft characterizations. His thematic concerns are often theological, and he works with a refined satiric touch as he tackles contemporary questions of faith and human foibles through such offbeat evangelical institutions as the Church of Holy Love, Inc., and the Open Heart Church. (See also CLC, Vols. 2, 4, 6, and Contemporary Authors, Vols. 13-16, rev. ed.)

Time and time again in Buechner's novels, and especially in his more recent ones, [the] tendency to self-defeat is manifest. One is often reminded that he is a man at odds with his own talents, who compresses a genius for lively prose and a marvelously comic imagination into themes and obligations which diminish them; while, in turn, his witty, ribald language and the extravagant machinery of his plots, make Buechner's serious themes seem sometimes coarse or tawdry.

Treasure Hunt is the fourth novel in the series about Leo Bebb, evangelist, flasher, saint and income tax evader, who, as far as anyone can tell, has gone up in flames, more or less comically, at the end of Love Feast, the previous novel. He only appears in this one, therefore, in home-movies, recordings, fantasy, dream and ectoplasmic visitation, which is quite enough. The plot, like that of earlier Bebb novels, is Gothic; a bouquet of incest, infanticide, miracles and mayhem, most of which seem to have neither narrative consequences nor emotional content. They happen to make noise, like events in a farce; but, unlike events in a farce, they occur soundlessly, offstage. Seductions, with no shred of passion left hanging to them, are talked about to someone, who tells someone else, who tells the narrator, Antonio Parr, who then tells us. Buechner tends to quote himself, and events which happened in earlier books appear in later ones with a sort of choral regularity of phrasing. Perhaps Buechner is saying something about the nature of memory, or reaching for the comic effect of the gossip of the gruesome which Voltaire and Swift, for instance, achieve with similar devices. But here, I think, the effect is more often that of repetition and dimness from too much distance. Often, too, Buechner omits the very details which he should not omit; for example when, in a book full of splendidly explicit language, he refers to Bebb's genital expositions with muffled euphemisms. Or, when he relates yet once more the story of Bebb's wife, who in a drunken rage has killed her baby with a toilet brush; in the last version of this, Buechner omits both the rage and the toilet brush, and treats us to the most romantic vision of child-abuse since Mary Hamilton went her way.

There is, in fact, an endless, heated, unconsummated flirtation in Treasure Hunt, between Buechner's lust for propriety and the massive improprieties he has chosen for his plot. The vile deeds and carnival stunts which make up all these novels might, left alone, erupt nicely into either farce or melodrama. But after creating them, Buechner never lets them alone long enough to fulfill their own purpose, and Treasure Hunt, at least, often reads like the Rabelais translation of Wuthering Heights. (pp. 38-9)

[Buechner's characterizations remind one of] those Broadway comedies of the '30s, in which funny people, easily recognizable from the second balcony by one large but harmless peccadillo, enter, collide and exit, without major social or dramatic consequences….

The serious purpose behind Buechner's novel appears to be to add one further dimension to the three earlier novels' exploration of the many sides of faith. They explored the Indian hereafter, as well as Bebb's grandiloquent Christianity and Gertrude Conover's fantasy of reincarnation. Treasure Hunt adds to these the faith in an infinite future, exemplified by our Star Trek belief that other worlds in outer space will bring an apotheosis of our own expertise in hardware and gimmickry….

Buechner's narrator keeps talking about things "pulling in two," and Buechner seems to see the world in rather Manichean terms of good and evil in constant coexistence and struggle. Reality and dream coincide and conflict, as do the treasure laid up in heaven and the worldly treasure laid up God knows where, to which the title refers. (p. 39)

This is a novel, then, of philosophical pretensions. But while he is juggling metaphysical puzzles, Buechner loses sight of balances much more fundamental to fiction. For instance, the children of this novel, all the children, are victims of hideous ironies of birth and breeding, and of the cruelty or neglect of their parents. Displaced and abandoned by vagaries of incest and by mere carelessness, their lot constitutes an outrage to which the only possible fictional responses are either comedy or despair. But Buechner seems to lose himself somewhere between Oedipus mislaid on the mountain top, and Ernest mislaid in a handbag on the Brighton line, a bland limbo where the mistreatment of children seems strangely unremarkable, and where I, at least, do not want to follow him.

I suppose in the story-telling regions of the mind, miracle and metaphor are often identical: the kiss that turns the beast to prince, the rose that knows the way home, the goose that lays golden eggs, the talking cat. Buechner is at his best when he trusts himself to such fairy-tales, when Rose Trionka, the Indian bride, floats down the aisle six feet off the ground, "as much under her own power as white clouds on a summer sky."… But miracles, to stay miraculous, must serve a generous purpose, conversion of the heathen, say, or at least conversion of a frog, or they are nothing more than hocus-pocus. And metaphors, if they serve no particular meaning, are nothing but purple prose. That, finally, is Buechner's major sin. All his vast machinery of plot, his dreams and visions, his four volumes of literary allusion and philosophical speculation, his films and visitations and sermons, his characters and even his geographies, are unrelated by any general purpose, by any unifying principle of tone, or theme, or raison d'être. Buechner remains a man divided against himself, and Treasure Hunt is still, like much of his earlier work, a dismayingly clever magic act. (pp. 39-40)

Edith Milton, in The New Republic (reprinted by permission of The New Republic; © 1977 by The New Republic, Inc.), September 17, 1977.

In his last three novels—"Lion Country," "Open Heart" and "Love Feast"—Frederick Buechner … spread the good news about Leo Bebb, an "itinerant minister of the gospel" with a flair for publicity that finally led to his perishing while doing stunts in an old airplane over the heads of the annual Princeton alumni parade or "P—rade." "Treasure Hunt," a sequel to this hard act to follow is a Bebbsian "Acts of the Apostles" taken up with certain classic religious questions. Was Leo Bebb a saint, a charlatan, or a little of both? Since his remains could not be discovered in the thoroughly burned-out wreckage of the plane, did he actually die? If he died, and was indeed a great mahatma, how will his spiritual legacy be preserved, interpreted and put to effective use by the little band of stricken apostles he left behind?

The apostles include Gertrude Conover, an 80-year-old Princeton theosophist of means…. (p. 15)

Gertrude Conover is a memorable character, and Babe Bebb's "Uforium" or Museum of Unidentified Flying Objects is an idea with considerable entertainment value. The book is ingenious in matching New Testament biblical motifs with modern equivalents so as to suggest that mysteries such as sanctity and the incarnation are pressing contemporary matters rather than mere ancient myth. But there are some flaws too. For one thing, the narrative is awash in similes that frequently fail to light up their subjects and are sometimes pretty senseless. We may be willing to put up with "people had to walk around him like furniture" for the sake of the weak joke, but what are we to do with "the oddness of it sinking into her face like quicksand" as a way of describing a character's mental reaction to a perceived incongruity? Also, there is something cliché and unobserved in Buechner's construction of a Southern town complete with corn-pone accents and lounging good old boys, while his introduction of some comically picturesque American Indians is a lapse of taste.

The treasure of the title phrase is of course the true quality of the dead evangelist's character and career, which, it is suggested at one point, may turn out to be trash instead of gold. Such inconclusiveness is probably a good thing, forcing readers to go digging out the truth for themselves—only the author should have equipped us with a sturdier and sharper set of digging implements. (p. 49)

Julian Moynahan, "Saint? Charlatan? Both?" in The New York Times Book Review (© 1977 by The New York Times Company; reprinted by permission), October 30, 1977, pp. 15, 49.