(Masterpieces of American Fiction)

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...

(The entire section is 1198 words.)