Last Updated on May 9, 2015, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 1198
In the 1970’s, Frederick Buechner published four novels centered on his most animated and most fully realized character, Leo Bebb: Lion Country (1971), Open Heart (1972), Love Feast (1974), and Treasure Hunt (1977). These four novels form the tetralogy which was reissued as one volume entitled The Book of Bebb ...
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- Critical Essays
In the 1970’s, Frederick Buechner published four novels centered on his most animated and most fully realized character, Leo Bebb: Lion Country (1971), Open Heart (1972), Love Feast (1974), and Treasure Hunt (1977). These four novels form the tetralogy which was reissued as one volume entitled The Book of Bebb (1979). Buechner took advantage of this reissuing to make some slight revisions, none of which materially altered the structure, characterization, or tone of his raucously comic creation.
Though the incorporation of these four novels in one volume results in some repetition, in reading The Book of Bebb, one has the sense of following a single continuous narrative. This is a remarkable achievement by Buechner, considering the fact that the four novels were written over a six-year period without an initial design for a tetralogy. Buechner accounts for the unity of the four works by reference to the ease with which the characters came to him. In regard to its eventual expansion into a tetralogy, Buechner explains that when he wrote the last sentence of Lion Country, his first Bebb novel, “I thought I had finished with them all for good but soon found that they were not finished with me.”
The Book of Bebb is not easy to summarize without making its characters and plot sound pretentiously eccentric and quirky. Its multileveled plot, however, basically chronicles the bawdy, hilarious life of Leo Bebb, “rogue preacher,” founder of Gospel Faith College, and pastor of the Church of Holy Love. His story is told by Antonio Parr, a listless man in search of a cause to which he can dedicate himself. Parr originally visits Bebb in order to expose him as a religious fraud, a charlatan who operates a shameless diploma mill. Parr becomes instead Bebb’s follower—and son-in-law— fascinated by Bebb’s eccentric “parish” of outcasts and nobodies. Parr is not, however, easily won to Bebb’s outlandish, decidedly anachronistic gospel of miracles and prophecy.
Parr’s encounter with Bebb and the trail of sorrows, joys, paradoxes, and incongruities that follow them illustrate the winding path a believer’s life may take, fraught with peril and adventure at every turn. In these four comic novels of great religious fervor, Buechner underscores the fact that faith in God is always difficult—“Hard as hell,” in Bebb’s words—but ultimately the only foundation on which to stand in a secularized world.
The first entry in the revised tetralogy, Lion Country, introduces the reader to all the main characters in Bebb’s entourage: his adopted daughter, Sharon; his alcoholic wife, Lucille; Brownie, a Christian whom Bebb has apparently resurrected from the dead; and Parr, the narrator and Bebb’s reluctant convert. Lion Country is a broad satire of religion, church life, and clergy, but rooted in a serious examination of what it means to believe in God in an age where He has been ruled out of court.
Ordained by mail, Parr journeys to Armadillo, Florida, to expose Bebb’s Gospel Faith College for the diploma mill it is. He finds, however, that Bebb is a sincere, down-to-earth believer with no illusions about himself or the world. Parr soon finds himself caught up in a new web of relationships that liberates him from the pretensions of modern life into the freedom of faith.
Open Heart, the second novel in the tetralogy, continues the Bebb chronicle two years later, employing Parr again as narrator, now married to Bebb’s adopted daughter Sharon and teaching at a Connecticut high school. Open Heart introduces a new assortment of eccentric characters, including Gertrude Conover, a rich Princeton Theosophist whose beliefs in reincarnation preview events to occur in the last volume of the tetralogy. The story opens with Bebb in Houston and concerns the outlandish events surrounding the death of Herman Redpath, an Indian millionaire whom Bebb had healed of impotence. Redpath leaves a small fortune for Bebb; with this new bounty, Bebb moves northward (where “the Great Whore is . . . holding a golden cup in her hand full of the abominations and filthiness of her fornications”). Now in New York City, he tries another of his peculiar adventures in evangelism, attempting to establish his new Open Heart Church. Attendance, however, is poor at his revival meetings, and he decides to turn aside to the “Pepsi Generation” to lead them to “Beulah Land.” The disappearance of his wife and the discovery of her suicide, the emergence of the mysterious Mr. Golden out of his past, and the imperiled marriage of Sharon and Antonio all militate against the success and buoyancy of Bebb’s endeavors, and Open Heart ends ambiguously enough to permit a sequel.
The third novel in the series, Love Feast, picks up the narrative where Open Heart ends, retelling several episodes from the previous volumes, including Parr’s crumbling marriage, Lucille Bebb’s death, and Bebb’s encounters with his circle of patrons: his paramour, Gertrude Conover, his former cellmate Clarence Golden, and a number of oil-rich Indians. Bebb attempts to recover his ministry despite having no church and having lost his companion by evangelizing the Pepsi Generation on the campus of Princeton University. His “Love Feast movement” is poised “to set up the Supper of the Lamb in groves of Academe.”
Bebb and his clan are eventually prohibited by the authorities from saving souls on campus, and in a last act of defiance, Princeton becomes the scene of a “sacramental orgy.” The rest of Love Feast is anticlimactic except for the death and funeral of Bebb, who apparently dies in a fiery plane crash while buzzing through the skies of Princeton with streamers advertising “Here’s to Jesus . . . here’s to you!” Leo Bebb, dying in a blaze of balloons and glory, is memorialized in a potato field north of Princeton, and the Bebb saga presumably has ended.
The final novel in the volume, Treasure Hunt, ties up remaining loose ends of the narrative, revealing essential biographical facts about Bebb and his twin brother, Babe. As Antonio and Sharon pick up the pieces of their marriage, Sharon discovers that Leo Bebb and Babe’s wife, Bert, had been adulterous lovers and that she is the offspring of Leo and Bert. Leo Bebb, as far as anyone knows, went up in flames at the end of Love Feast.
The setting is now Poinsett, South Carolina, where a cassette recording of Bebb explains that he has left a home to his daughter Sharon, suggesting that she and Antonio “do something nice with that old place . . . for Jesus.” The reader quickly gets a strong suspicion that Bebb has been reincarnated—and in, of all places, the body of a blind, one-year-old son of food-stamp parents in Poinsett. Treasure Hunt contains the kind of grotesquerie and carnival humor found in the three previous works, but finally settles into a serious contemplation of the demands of true faith on the believer. Bebb’s legacy, ultimately, is an uncompromising determination to live life fully, through to its end, refusing to concede anything to the darkness and hatred of memory or past failure. The God of Bebb, and of Buechner as well, is a God of redemption and forgiveness, and a God of limitless beginnings.