Year of Reading Buechner: Lion Country

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.

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The original 1971 cover

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…

Buechner’s characters, from Godric to Brendan to the biblical patriarch Jacob (in Son of Laughter) all have this hint of the “holy fool” about them.

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.

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Just to give you another view….This fellow obviously got more out of the book than I did. 

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

2018 Reading Challenge: The Year of Reading Buechner

Year of Reading Buechner: The Remarkable Ordinary

Year of Reading Buechner: A Sacred Journey

Year of Reading Buechner: Brendan, A Novel

Year of Reading Buechner: The Alphabet of Grace

Year of Reading Buechner: Now and Then: A Memoir of Vocation

Year of Reading Buechner: Godric

Year of Reading Buechner: Telling Secrets: A Memoir

Year of Reading Buechner: A Room Called Remember

 

 

Year of Reading Buechner: The Alphabet of Grace

In 1968, Frederick Buechner had just moved with his family to a farmhouse in Vermont, after concluding a successful stint as a the department head of the Religion department at Philip Exeter Academy in New Hampshire.

Buechner began working on a new novel, but making the transition from writing amidst a busy career to focussing solely on writing was a challenge, and he soon found himself struggling. He writes in his memoir, Now and Then, that the writing of it…was so painful that I find it hard, even now, to see beyond the memory of the pain to whatever merit it may have.

In the midst of this struggle he received an invitation from the Chaplain at Harvard to present the Noble Lecture series in the winter of 1969, a proposal which both flattered and intimidated Buechner. Previous presenters had included luminaries such as Richard Niebuhr, and Buechner was uncertain he was up to the task.

However, the Chaplain, Charles Price, upon hearing Buechner’s concerns, wrote back, suggesting that he write something about “religion and letters”. And out of that thin sliver of inspiration, The Alphabet of Grace was born; first as the lecture series, and subsequently published as a book.

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Buechner’s idea was to write about the everyday events of life,

…as the alphabet through which God, of his grace, spells out his words, his meaning, to us. So The Alphabet of Grace was the title I hit upon, and what I set out to do was to try to describe a single representative day of my life in a way to suggest what there was of God to hear in it.

The book is broken up into three sections: Gutturarls (6:45-7:30 AM); Sibilants (7:30 -8:30 AM), and Absence of Vowels (8:30 AM – 11 PM). At the time Buechner’s family was growing up around him, and he writes of ordinary things such as getting up in the morning, having breakfast, dropping the kids off at school, and going to work–which in his case was to the nearby church where he co-opted a Sunday School room in which to write–followed by going home and finally to bed.

An ordinary day, in other words, such as is lived by many ordinary people. But don’t be fooled. Out of this ordinary day Buechner has crafted an extraordinary book, which will linger with you long after it is finished. It is a long meditation on how to see God in the midst of an ordinary life, and the difference that makes to the person living it.

The first sentence of the book is this:

At its heart most theology, like most fiction, is essentially autobiography. 

His point is that people understand concepts through the lenses of their own experiences, whether that be the concept of family, love, or friendship. And so it is with our understanding of God and faith. We meet Him in the daily ordinariness of our own existence, or not at all, and this is the theme that runs through this book.

Right at the beginning he quotes a passage from one of his own books (The Final Beast) in which the character, a young clergyman, lies down in the grass, praying a fervent prayer of only one word: Please. A prayer of longing, not entirely sure of what he is asking, until he clarifies it. Please come, Jesus. 

And nothing happens, at least, nothing that anyone would notice. Except for the young man, who, in the midst of an extraordinary moment of timelessness and significance, hears two branches of an apple tree strike together in the wind: clack-clack.

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Photo by Roman Kraft on Unsplash

 

This was not just a moment in Buechner’s novel. He explains in The Alphabet of Grace that this was a moment he lifted out of his life and put in the novel. And it perfectly describes the way in which a person can be moved out of unbelief into faith, in ways that are hard to explain to anyone else but real, nonetheless.

The quote from the novel continues,

It was an agony of gladness and beauty falling wild and soft like rain. Just clack-clack, but praise him, he thought. Praise him. Maybe all his journeying, he thought, had been only to bring him here to hear two branches hit each other twice like that, to see nothing cross the threshold but to see the threshold, to hear the dry clack-clack of the world’s tongue at the approach of the approach of splendour. 

This idea, of the ordinary moment being transformed into one of transcendence, is the idea that Buechner explores throughout the book. The clack-clack of those branches are interwoven in and out of the ordinary events of his day.

Don’t be fooled into thinking that Buechner is a giant of faith, who has it all figured out. Part of his great appeal is that he shows himself just as he is, doubting, confused, and weary, hanging on by the skin of his teeth, so to speak. And yet, he cannot even now turn away from the path.

Cannot is not the right word. If faith is anything, it is a choice. God comes to us with his hand outstretched, and it is up to us to take it, or not. In the moments of his day, through the interactions with his wife, his children, through the struggle of putting words down that convey exactly what he means, Buechner shows us how the choice to take that hand is presented again and again. It’s so easy to forget, in the midst of the minutes passing, that at every moment is a moment in which we can take that hand.

Doubt is not fatal to faith. In fact, doubt can strengthen faith, through an honest wrestling through the questions that plague us. Buechner writes of doubt, and the longing for a miracle that would put all the doubts to rest. But then he muses,

Not the least of my problems is that I can hardly even imagine what kind of an experience a genuine, self-authenticating religious experience would be. Without somehow destroying me in the process, how could God reveal himself in a way that would leave no room for doubt? If there were no room for doubt, there would be no room for me. 

And so, through the ordinary day of an ordinary man, we see his journey and gain a new understanding of our own., We hear the clack-clack of the branches, signalling the approach of the approach of splendour. 

And with him we say, praise Him.

Year of Reading Buechner: A Sacred Journey

After reading Buechner’s latest book last month to start of my Year of Reading Buechner, I decided that before going any further into his works I should read his first memoir, The Sacred Journey, so as to have a sense of who he is, and of some of his story.

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The photo on the front is of the author as a young boy with his father.

Buechner has written four memoirs all told. The Sacred Journey is his first, written in 1981, when he was fifty-five years old. He was at the apex of a busy and successful career as a lecturer and author, and decided that he would begin to set down the story of his life.

This first memoir covers the first part of his life, from childhood to just after the publication of his first and second novels, and includes his decision to become a Christian and to pursue the ministry.

Those few words are far too utilitarian to describe this lovely book, however. I was very glad to see that my hunch in reading last month’s book was correct. That book, The Remarkable Ordinary, was a compilation of some of his previously unpublished lectures. I found the writing style to be somewhat casual, more like a lecture than well thought out writing, but I was thought that his other books would likely have a higher writing standard.

I was not disappointed. This book captivates from the very first sentence.

How do you tell the story of your life–of how you were born, and the world you were born into, and the world that was born in you?

In Buechner’s case, he tells the story by weaving us a beautiful tale of grace-haunted moments, of sorrow and joy, of childhood and the larger-than-life characters that populate his world. And of failures and successes, and of the backdrop of his life, which was America in the 1930s to the 1960s, and how that era marked him.

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Warwick Academy, in Bermuda, the school Buechner attended in the 1930s after moving there with his family for a short while.  Of his time in Bermuda he writes, “I lived there…with a sense of the magic and mystery of things greater than I had ever experienced this side of Oz.”  Image from the Bermuda Sun

I don’t want to re-tell the story of his life, because I would really love you to read it for yourself. He tells it so much better than I could.

This is a short book, only 112 pages in my paperback copy, but full of wisdom and truth. I’ve starred or underlined something every two or three pages. It’s a book that weaves a gentle, contemplative spell.

As he explains,

Deep within history, as it gets itself written down in history books and newspapers, in the letters we write and the diaries we keep, is sacred history, is God’s purpose working itself out in the apparent purposelessness of human history and of our separate histories, is the history, in short, of the saving and losing of souls, including our own.

It is this most important history that Buechner addresses in this book. God is speaking through our lives, he writes. What can the events and ordinariness of our lives tell us of what he has said, and what he is saying still?

I am reading this book in my 55th year, so I understand perhaps some of the motivation he had for writing this book. As you get older the past becomes both more significant, and less. The people who populate it, especially those who live only in your memories now, are mythic beings. The events you have lived, some epic, some ordinary, are signposts along the way. You get feeling that you want to make sense of it all, and there must be some sense to make, if you could only spend some time to figure it out.

I love that he took that yearning and turned his life story into so much more than just a story of events, although you certainly get those. But woven throughout all of it is the question of not just what happened, but what it means. And therein is an even more interesting tale.

This wider scope is what makes this book both so very intimate but also so very relevant to the reader. As he says,

My assumption is that the story of any one of us is in some measure the story of us all.

Indeed, in the telling of his story Buechner invites us to look with new eyes upon our own story, to see those grace-haunted moments that we may have been oblivious to when we lived them.

This book has many, many glowing reviews, and I will confess that although I didn’t disbelieve the authors of the reviews, I couldn’t quite understand why people said it was a book they returned to again and again. Why would you want to read a memoir of someone’s life over and over? Once you had read it, wouldn’t your curiosity be satisfied?

Now I understand. This is a book that is meant to be read, and re-read, and savoured.  Buechner gives you much to ponder, and a light to shine on your own path. I highly recommend it.

My rating: 5 stars. Or however many stars you would give to one of the best books you have read.

 

 

 

 

 

 

2018 Reading Challenge: The Year of Reading Buechner

So…here we are in 2018!

A brand new year is an opportunity for reflecting on the past and looking forward to the future, and in this case, I’m going to do the latter and reveal my new reading challenge for 2018: The Year of Reading Buechner.

First of all, a brief explanatory note. I started doing a reading challenge two years ago, with my Year of Reading Lewis, in which once a month I read a book by C.S. Lewis and blogged about it here. I truly enjoyed that series, and will definitely do a Year of Reading Lewis, Pt. 2, one year, because there are many more Lewis books I want to re-read and others I want to discover.

Last year I embarked on the Year of Fun Reading Challenge, inspired by the Modern Mrs. Darcy blog, and had a great time! But this year I wanted to return to something a little more meaty. I almost decided on doing my Lewis Pt. 2 series again, but in the end decided to branch out a bit and try someone different; an author into whose works I have been wanting to delve more deeply.

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Frederick Buechner. Photo from frederickbuechner.com

Frederick Buechner (pronounced BEEK-ner) is one of America’s greatest living writers, still active today, in his nineties. He has earned many awards, including the O. Henry Award, finalist for the Pulitzer Prize, finalist for the National Book Award, Christianity and Literature Belles Lettres Prize, Critics’ Choice Book Award, and others. His honorary degrees include ones from Yale and Virginia Theological Seminary.

Buechner is both an author and a ordained Presbyterian minister, and his writing runs the gamut from poetry, essays, fiction, sermons, and autobiography. He has published over 30 books, which gives me a lot to choose from!

I am not completely new to Frederick Buechner. A couple of years ago I read The Son of Laughter, his book about the biblical patriarch Jacob. I found it so startling and compelling I have been eager to read more of his work ever since. Aside from that, though, I chose Frederick Buechner for my focus this year for a couple of reasons.

First of all, he is someone who writes about the intersection of faith, culture, and art, and that is something I am very interested in. I’m looking forward to his thoughts on this, and to examining how he does that in his own writing.

Blechner also has a couple of fiction books on medieval saints. Godric (published in 1980) was the finalist for the Pulitzer Prize that year, and Brendan (1987), is about one of my favourite characters from the Early Middle Ages, Brendan the Navigator. So I will be able to tie at least some of his writing into my Dark Ages focus here on the blog.

Finally, I have been intrigued by the many quotes and excerpts I have read by Buechner.  And in October, when I read this post over at A Pilgrim in Narnia, I was sold. Buechner it would be for 2018!

Probably his most famous quote is one that is good for us all to ponder, especially as we head into this new year:

Listen to your life. See it for the fathomless mystery it is. In the boredom and pain of it, no less than in the excitement and gladness: touch, taste, smell your way to the holy and hidden heart of it, because in the last analysis all moments are key moments, and life itself is grace.

– Frederick Buechner, Now and Then: A Memoir of Vocation.

I hope you will join me as I journey into the writing of Frederick Buechner. As in previous years, I will be reading one book a month for this series and will blog about it on the last Friday of the month. The series will start at the end of January with one of Frederick Buechner’s newest: The Remarkable Ordinary: How to Stop, Look, and Listen to Your Life. 


Featured Image from Quotesvalley.com