Critical Context

(Masterpieces of American Fiction)

Buechner’s best-selling first novel, A Long Day’s Dying (1950), a rarefied and intellectual treatment of the ethical malaise of modern life, was highly praised as an impressive debut for a new “modernist storyteller.” Buechner’s subsequent work, from 1952 to 1969, while attracting a dedicated and enthusiastic audience, failed to achieve the acclaim evoked by his first novel.The Book of Bebb, however, comprising as it does his four most successful works of fiction in one volume, has returned Buechner to critical favor. The Book of Bebb is a pivotal work in his career, representing the maturity of a comic narrative style which began to evolve in Buechner’s first explicitly religious novel, The Final Beast (1965). In The Final Beast, Buechner had made a sharp break from the baroque, Jamesian narrative technique of his earlier novels, moving from mannered “drawing room” characters and brooding narrators to more ordinary people speaking in direct and unpretentious dialogue.

Suddenly, it seemed, Buechner had developed a sense of humor, and he had. Both the style and substance of his fiction became much lighter and more joyful, celebrating the inexplicable meaningfulness of human life discovered in the most mundane of circumstances.

An ordained Presbyterian minister, Buechner remains the most skillful contemporary chronicler of mankind’s search for faith in a secular age. Impressive in his control of diverse fictional and nonfictional modes of discourse, he is at once a leading Christian apologist, writer of meditations, novelist, and memoirist. The common strain through all of Buechner’s works is his conviction that life is, in the end, a story: a story to be celebrated, a story to be endured, but above all, a story to be told. No one who reads Buechner’s prose can come away from it knowing less of himself; his readers become, finally, the parish of this minister without a church, a minister turned master storyteller.