Frederick Buechner Essay - Buechner, Frederick (Vol. 2)

Buechner, Frederick (Vol. 2)

Buechner, Frederick 1926–

Buechner, an American novelist, is also a Presbyterian minister. (See also Contemporary Authors, Vols. 13-14.)

Technically, Frederick Buechner's "The Alphabet of Grace" is a prose piece, but you don't get very far in it before you know that the author has set himself the task of the poet. There is no narrative—it is not fiction; nor can it be classed as an essay or polemic. The author takes the common, mundane experiences of daily life and reflects on them. It is a sort of journal. A careless reader might class it in a journal-of-the-soul genre, but Mr. Buechner would wince at this. It is much better described as a journal of the body. That is, in so far as that body, and all the pleasure and fatigue and sensation and eating and irrigation that go along with it, suggests more than itself, it is worth our while (says this book) to sit up and take notice. Mr. Buechner's subject here is the humdrum, in the same sense that Keats's was a Grecian urn, or Eliot's a visit to an old country church at Little Gidding. And what he does with his material is what the poets do with theirs: he surprises and delights (and—very softly—teaches) us by giving some shape to apparently random experience by uttering it.

He goes about his work modestly. Being a minister, he is theologically trained, but he shies at the gap between dogma and experience that you sometimes find in theological formularies….

There is a kind of two-level musing that goes on all through the book, the one proceeding from a keen, flesh-and-blood awareness of the beauty and irony of things around us, the other from a poet-theologian's awareness of mystery and meaning in things….

The author's vision, then, is that of the poet—the Christian poet. He has articulated what he sees with a freshness and clarity and energy that hails our stultified imaginations. Perhaps he will not be too modest to give us, some day, in poetry what he has begun so disarmingly in prose.

Thomas Howard, in The New York Times Book Review (© 1970 by The New York Times Company; reprinted by permission), December 6, 1970, p. 69.

On one level [in Lion Country] we are being told about the reassessment of goals and values which joggles the elbow of every 40-year-old. On another, we are being reminded that the spirit of Christianity is more a matter of energy and awareness than of forms and rites. That Saint Paul said that the day of the Lord would come like a thief in the night has become a comfortable, poetic thought that Christianity has to keep translating into such outrageous terms as Mr. Buechner contemplates: that Christ will come as a Florida real estate booster in a loud shirt.

Insofar as this novel makes meaning arise from tacky and worldly matters, it is awfully good to read, but even when we are in full appreciation of the brisk and lively way in which the story is told, there remains the curious fact that the protagonist is not a protagonist at all. He tells the story, makes love to his wife-to-be, and learns a thing or two. He encounters no conflicts, has no adventures; in short, participates in none of the energy that flows through the novel. One wonders, after all, if he benefitted from being in lion country, or whether he merely looked at it and told us about it.

Guy Davenport, in The New York Times Book Review (© 1971 by The New York Times Company; reprinted by permission), February 14, 1971, p. 7.

[In "Lion Country,"] Buechner … has turned upon sacred matters a most wonderfully secular, often profane, fancy. The novel's plot, recklessly busy and perfectly controlled, brings forward Leo Bebb, a dealer in mail-order ordinations and, perhaps, in miracles. He is juxtaposed with the narrator's twin sister, dying piecemeal of a monstrous disease. Rather than erect these characters as polar opposites, toward one or another of which the novel's remaining population might be attracted, Buechner enriches every character with the vital comic potential of Bebb and the stoic grace of Miriam.

"Lion Country" has a tough quality, as though Buechner were testing himself. Every line is as straight as it can be drawn; if it must bend a bit, if mysteries must insist upon their mysteriousness, then, having proved themselves, they are left as they were found. But the book's ambition is for particularity, the perfectly perceived shape of things from which all legitimate wonder proceeds.

Geoffrey Wolff, "Mail-Order Miracles," in Newsweek (copyright Newsweek, Inc. 1971; reprinted by permission), February 22, 1971, p. 98.

Frederick Buechner has been hard at work for over 20 years, and between his excellent first novel, A Long Day's Dying (1950), and his newest, Open Heart, are a variety of memorable fictional characters as well as some volumes of "meditations." Open Heart is a continuation of the Bebb saga, begun in last year's Lion Country. Some sequels are bad news; this one will be widely welcomed.

Paul Theroux, "Comedy Most Serious," in Book World (© The Washington Post), May 28, 1972, p. 4.

[Open Heart] is an ingenious and glorious metaphor of Christian messianism. But it is both more and less than this: a novel; and its ways are the ways of the novel…. Bebb is no theorem or metaphysics. Bebb lives—whether the world is felt to be hallowed or not—with an antic and radiant insatiability; he reminds one a little of Thomas Mann's Joseph. And Buechner is, by his own lights and in some of the most masterly comic prose being written in America, sanctifying the profane. Fraud is only a seeming; suffering and frailty are the means of our purification, and death is not death but eternal life. For me (for whom the Messiah has not yet come), these are illusions, and therefore how hard being a Christian seems!

Cynthia Ozick, in The New York Times Book Review (© 1972 by The New York Times Company; reprinted by permission), June 11, 1972, pp. 4-5, 36.

Frederick Buechner sees life as consisting not of events but of stories; the world is a place where the desire to know is blessedly interfered with by the sense of alternative possibilities. There may be grace in a secular realm, but it is to be found, if at all, only in the least likely places, as for example in Leo Bebb, Southern evangelist, founder of the Church of Holy Love, Inc., and national president of Gospel Faith College, whose story is continued from Buechner's earlier novel Lion Country….

Ex-con, diploma-mill proprietor, and occasional homophile, Bebb is every inch a charlatan, if amiably so. Yet to Antonio Parr, his son-in-law and the narrator of Open Heart, who as a Protestant prefers grace to works, Bebb sometimes, from odd angles, seems close to having genuine spiritual gifts. "I believe everything," he says, and this total acceptance of things seen and unseen, without any irritable reaching after fact and reason, is the obverse of his arrogant fakery. Whether or not he really did raise his disciple Brownie from the dead or restore virility to the octogenarian Indian Herman Redpath, whether or not his alcoholic wife is right in thinking he's "from outer space," still he rebukes our secular rationality rather as Keats rebuked Dilke, who "will never come at a truth so long as he lives, because he is always trying at it." For Buechner, watching Bebb is as astonishing and exhilarating as watching the Holy Spirit descend upon Billy Graham or Oral Roberts….

But readers of fiction, however regrettably, are finally more Dilke than Keats. Indeterminacy like this is a dangerous game for a novelist, if not for a Christian, and Buechner's fondness for it risks seeming coy and evasive. Making the best of both worlds glosses over the seriousness of our troubles with this one, and if we're all in God's hands here and now, then the novelists have been wasting their time. Open Heart never quite says that we're all in God's hands, and it's otherwise a likable book, inventive, funny, and observant about American life without excessive condescension to our vulgarity. But at its center there's a blur a great novel couldn't tolerate.

Thomas R. Edwards, in The New York Review of Books (reprinted with permission from The New York Review of Books; © 1972 by NYREV, Inc.), July 20, 1972, pp. 20-1.

That strong and refreshing comic sense so abundantly revealed in Buechner's recent novels is once more on display in a slyly composed new book [Open Heart] with many of those outrageous mountebanks from his last making their reappearance: the evangelist and his fake college granting spurious degrees at the drop of a fee, his alcoholic wife, their libertine daughter whose speech knows few restraints, and finally the cozened protagonist here cuckolded by his nephew. New characters wander in and out of the story adding their share of hilarity, but none can match the rich old Indian from the previous book now shown suffering a final indignity even as he lies in his coffin. Mr. Buechner has many gifts. He is resourceful, ingenious, a stylist, and uncommonly effective with his ribald wit.

Virginia Quarterly Review, Vol. 48, No. 4 (Autumn, 1972), p. cxx.

In the fifties Buechner published three stiflingly well-written novels. In 1958 he was ordained a minister of the Presbyterian Church, became chaplain at Andover, and that, by all rights, should have been that. But while it is true that a recent Reader's Digest contains a little Buechner piece on the Bible as a book nobody knows, it is also true that he left Andover in 1967 and since then has opened up as a real novelist. The latest, Open Heart, is a sequel to Lion Country of last year, and it looks as though, like 2 Henry IV, this sequel wasn't planned until the first book was over. Buechner also seems to have found, in Leo Bebb, the evangelical minister who has churches with names like Holy Love and Open Heart, a Falstaff, a character too good to quit on after only one novel….

What makes [the Leo Bebb novels] succeed is Buechner's deft placing of all these characters, keeping them funny or impossible when seen from a distance, then making them briefly very moving when suddenly seen from close up. Near the end one sees Buechner fumbling, probably because he wants to leave room for still another sequel if he finds one, and the inconclusiveness of the last fifty pages highlights Buechner's tendency to just go on letting his characters go and then reining them in because he is not sure what else to do with them, what final story is theirs. So there should be a book to follow this one, where we do come out somewhere. In the meantime it must be made clear that Buechner is not just a man who writes well but one with something to write well about.

Roger Sale, "Enemies, Foreigners, and Friends," in Hudson Review, Winter, 1972–73, pp. 703-14.

Frederick Buechner is an ordained Presbyterian minister. (Which means I no longer have a pigeon-hole for ordained Presbyterian ministers.) In this book [Open Heart] he continues the story he began in Lion Country—which I haven't read but now want to very much—the story of Leo Bebb, founder of the Church of Holy Love, and later the Church of the Open Heart. There are mysteries in Bebb's life; a baby that shouldn't have died, a wife hooked on Tropicanas, an elusive Mr. Golden lurking at the back of his congregations. But Bebb wields an imaginative range of Biblical quotation, and when his millionaire Red Indian patron dies and leaves him a hundred thousand dollars, such mysteries are easily forgotten….

Bebb's story is told slightly off-centre. Bebb's son-in-law … has a sculpture hanging in a shed out the back, and he can't make up his mind if it's finished or not…. His twin sister died of cancer, lashed in a plaster cast the shape of a huge A. His wife studies yoga and speed-writing to the detriment of their sex-life….

If I've made this book sound just quirky, then I've done it a disservice. Somewhere, on some level, it always makes sense. It can be hilariously funny, bleakly tragic and provocatively theological, all in the space of one paragraph. Bebb himself, of course, is a magnificent creation.

D. G. Compton, in Books and Bookmen, March, 1973, pp. 76-7.