Frederick Buechner published Lion Country as a stand-alone novel in 1971, to great acclaim. It was a finalist for the National Book Award in Fiction in 1972. Buechner would go on to write three other novels featuring Leo Bebb, one of the main characters in Lion Country: Open Heart (1972), Love Feast (1974) and Treasure Hunt (1977). These were all compiled together and published as a one-volume tetralogy called The Book of Bebb, in 1979.
Lion Country wasn’t the first novel Buechner had written (it is his sixth), but it does come before the other novels I have read in this series. I was greatly anticipating reading it, based on some reviews and comments I have read about it.
Unfortunately, I have to say that I struggled with this book.
Buechner’s fiction is often populated by slightly grotesque figures, and this book is no different. He delights in writing about odd, deeply flawed people who nonetheless, have a hint of the holy about them. It’s a stock character that he first encountered as a boy in King Rinkitink, in the Oz books, but continued to be haunted by throughout his life. He explains his attraction to these characters in his memoir, The Sacred Journey, writing about the whiskey priest in Graham Greene’s novel, The Power and the Glory:
…what Greene fathomlessly conveys is that the power and glory of God are so overwhelming that they can shine forth into the world through even such as one as this seedy, alcoholic little failure of a man who thus, less by any virtue of his own than by the sheer power of grace within him, becomes a kind of saint at the end…
Leo Bebb, the holy roller diploma-mill charlatan, is definitely cut from this mold. He is a slippery character to pin down, sometimes heroic, sometimes foolish and vain, and with a shadowy past of jail time for exposing himself to children, hovering over him. And to be honest, this last part of the book is where the novel fell down for me. Perhaps the times have changed too much from 1971 until now. This possible scandal of Bebb’s past, which surfaces again in the novel’s present time action, is too fraught with pain and sorrow and agony, in our modern-day reality of pedophile priests. Especially since Buechner uses it as a sort of strange comic relief at the end.
The main character, Antonio Parr, is pretty much a regular guy, although slightly neurotic, and drifting through his life. He has a girlfriend that he hasn’t been able to commit to for seven years; he has tried teaching, writer, and artist as a career, never getting too far with any of those. He is a man very much waiting for something to happen to kick him out of his rut, and Bebb comes along just in the nick of time.
Antonio answers an ad in the paper which states “Put yourself on God’s payroll–go to work for Jesus NOW”, and after enclosing a love offering and a self-addressed envelope, receives an ordination certificate in his name, from the Church of Holy Love in Armadillo, Florida. Antonio writes back, offering to meet with Bebb the next time he was in New York to discuss various ministries he might do, but secretly planning on exposing Bebb as a charlatan.
The novel opens with their meeting in New York, and Antonio is immediately captivated by Bebb, with his odd appearance and mannerisms, and his strange way of speaking. I am here to save your soul, Antonio Parr, Bebb tells him. How could Antonio not be intrigued?
Antonio ends up making a trip down to Florida to do more in-depth research for himself, leaving gloomy New York with his dying twin sister and his stalled relationship, and finds himself in sunny, hot Florida, where he meets Bebb again, along with his assistant Brownie, wife Lucille, and their adopted daughter Sharon. All of these characters are odd in their own ways, and it adds to the circus-like atmosphere of the world surrounding Bebb.
The action of the book moves between these two worlds, Florida and New York, and takes us along with Antonio on a journey of doubt and faith, but not in the way you might think. This is not a story of an unbeliever who has a dramatic faith conversion. Far from it. This is a glimpse at the beginning of someone’s faith journey, of those first few musings, the beginning back and forth between belief and doubt, when doubt very much has the upper hand.
There are a lot of ambiguities in this book. Is Bebb a charlatan, or no? What happened to Bebb and Lucille’s infant daughter, exactly? Are the “silvers and golds”, as Bebb calls them, really aliens from outer space? Did Bebb really resurrect Brownie from the dead? And when Bebb exposes himself during Herman Redpath’s ordination, was it done on purpose, or not? And if he did, why would he?
I suppose there are layers in this book that I am missing. Perhaps I need to read the rest of the books and get Bebb’s whole story. I probably will, but not just now.
So, I can’t say I loved it, which I’m sad about. It’s the first thing of Buechner’s that I can’t wholeheartedly recommend.
But that’s ok. There’s more Buechner to read, and I’ll be diving into more of his non-fiction this month. Look for my next Year of Reading Buechner post at end of November, where I will be discussing Eyes of the Heart, his fourth (and last) memoir.
For more posts in my Year of Reading Buechner series, see the links below