The character of Ian Bedloe is firmly established in chapters 3 and 4 of Saint Maybe by Anne Tyler as he deals with the grief of his brother Danny's death. At the beginning of chapter 3, Tyler uses the graphic image of an amoeba shaping its body around a black dot of food, which Ian remembers from having seen it under a microscope in his school days. Throughout the days that follow Danny's death, Ian is shown trying to absorb what the death means to him, his parents, and Danny's pretty young widow, Lucy. He sees it loom up before him like a dark and stony obstacle in the midst of his happiest, most ordinary moments.
Ian is only eighteen, set to go to Sumner College, but he is now faced with the implacable fact that perhaps his brother Danny drove his car into a wall one night after Ian had told him that Lucy may have been cheating on him. His heart, ravaged by guilt, is further torn apart by a call from his mother one day shortly after he has arrived at college, telling him that Lucy has died after overdosing on sleeping pills. Now Ian is crushed by the weight of feeling responsible for not just one but two deaths in his own beloved family. He has recurring dreams of Danny, from which he wakes much shaken.
Going home for his sister-in-law's funeral, Ian learns from Mrs. Myrdal, the long-time babysitter for his family, that Lucy was a shoplifter who took scarves and silk blouses from shop shelves and hid them in her baby's stroller. He realizes with blinding insight that this is the secret of his sister-in-law having expensive dresses that his brother hadn't bought her. What he suspected was an affair with another man was just his sister-in-law shoplifting. "Oh, God, this is the one last little dark dot I can't possibly absorb," he thinks, in a reprisal of the amoeba image.
At the funeral, Ian is seeking relief from his racking anguish, keeping his eyes closed as he pleads with an unseen God. He joins the singing of "Abide with Me" with his voice emerging as a mere croak, but he feels the power of the song's plea and is cleansed of his grief and self-blame at the end. This scene lays the groundwork for what will be a big leap for Danny later in the chapter. The pain, grief, and loss Ian has felt can only be healed with help from above, and he knows this.
What makes his entry into the Church of the Second Chance believable is the sheer chance of it and the way he is accepted by the people praying inside. It is often easier to speak about one's troubles to a stranger than to those closest to us, and likewise, Ian finds that he can tell Reverend Emmett the nature of his deep grief. woman in the church speaks of the loss of her son in a freak accident in Vietnam, and having let a laugh escape him at the thought of the woman's son stepping off into space like a cartoon figure, Ian is able to stand up and speak before strangers about how he yearns to be good again. This is one of the most moving and significant moments in what is a pivotal chapter in the book.
What happens in chapter 4 then become much easier to understand. The layers of Ian's upper-class upbringing slowly begin to peel away as his life expands into areas completely unlikely to have been familiar to him before. Not only has he dropped out of college and taken on the responsibility of raising Lucy's two children and the one she had with Danny, he is also apprenticed to a carpenter and working with his hands. He also drives the children to a summer camp that his mother calls the Holy Roller camp. Tyler takes care to describe each texture, each contrasting detail of what happens after Ian has embraced the Church of the Second Chance, in order to drive home what a departure it is from the genteel and predictable world he had always known before. At nineteen, Ian has become a deeply responsible adult who doesn't drink or eat sweets but takes pride in what he learns to make from Mr. Brant, the carpenter.
The transition is believable because Anne Tyler, in her trademark style, describes each moment so perfectly. Dreams about Danny cease to torment Ian in the way they did just after Danny's death. Ian's arrival and acceptance in the motley community of the Church of the Second Chance is no less spiritual or uplifting than a ceremony in a high church, even if it is under fluorescent lights.