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A faith to live and die with

Sojourners,  May/Jun 1998  by Brown, W Dale

The stories and words of Frederick Buechner

Shirley's Old Book Shop in Springfield, Missouri, was, in 1980, a perfect sort of place for book lovers. Complete with musty smells, dusty shelves, and a witty proprietor, the shop promised that this time, maybe, you could find the book to change your life. And I was in the market for that.

Dressed in a black pullover that roughly matched her smudgy wig, Shirley presided over her shop with a certain regal sense of what was good for us, her customers. She had an eye for the out-of-the-way book that just might work for one of the out-of-theway folks who dropped in every few days. Shirley introduced me to Frederick Buechner.

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Still carrying its orange and yellow dust jacket, the book stood out gaudily on the shelf. The Book of Bebb-an omnibus of four novels-though hefty, felt right in the hand. And at $4.60, how could I lose? It was a cheap enough price for a week or so of escape into somebody else's story.

I'd never heard of this Buechner. Was it "Bukener," or "Buckner," or "Beekner"? I'd never heard of Bebb either, for that matter, but I took him home for a trial run. I'd probably have been more careful had I known where Leo Bebb would take me.

LEO BEBB, WEARING a porkpie hat and a raincoat that is a size too small, is the "shady minister" at the center of the four novels: Lion Country (1971), Open Heart (1972), Love Feast (1974), and Treasure Hunt (1977). I had long been wary of over-identification with characters in books, but Buechner's Bebb and Bebb's erstwhile sidekick Antonio Parr invited me into a world where the questions were some of my own.

The Leo Bebb of Lion Country is a con man extraordinaire: He runs a degree-granting, mail-order Bible college from the garage of his house in Armadillo, Florida. He ordains anyone who writes himanyone male and over the age of 18, that is. His advertisement in a New York newspaper reads: "Put yourself on God's payroll-go to work for Jesus NOW."

Thus enters Antonio Parr, "hungry for fortissimo," homesick, lost, and restless. Antonio writes to Bebb's "Church of Holy Love, Inc." to get his ordination papers. The story is straightforward enough: Antonio, aspiring to investigative journalism, is going to shine light into the vermin-infested corner that is Leo Bebb, cousin to all the clerical charlatans who have filled our newspaper exposes in recent years.

But Antonio carries more than the ordinary baggage as he boards a train for Armadillo to get the goods on Bebb. Antonio bears the image of his twin sister, Miriam, who is dying of bone cancer in a New York hospital. In a grotesque body cast shaped like the letter "A," Miriam is suffering out the remaining days of her uncompleted life.

Antonio lives out his days in a dream, only vaguely aware of what's happening around him. He knows, as he says, what he's looked at but not what he's seen. Uncertain of ever making the most of his life, Antonio just tries to make the best of it. He has investigated all sorts of professions-writing, teaching, sculpting and all sorts or relationships.

Buechner manages to engage his readers in his tired narrator's mission-the noble task of debunking the hypocritical Bebb. Buechner never minces words about Bebb's transgressions. He shares Antonio's rage when the journalist-to-be learns that Bebb has done prison time for exposing himself to a group of children. Bebb is the raincoat-wearing flimflam artist, the abuser of all things holy, the worst it gets in villains. We are ready for him to "get his."

Determined to expose the exposer, Antonio meets Lucille, Bebb's alcoholic wife, who, like the television set she watches all day, seems slightly out of contrast; Brownie, Bebb's disciple and right-hand man, whom Bebb has maybe raised from the dead in Knoxville, Tennessee; and Sharon, Bebb's adopted daughter, with that "caught red-handed smile." Out to embarrass the head of the slapstick family, Antonio finds himself weirdly attracted instead. And what's even more unsettling, Bebb begins to wrench Antonio's preconceptions inside out.

Though everything from his fluttering eyelid to his too-tight clothes suggests fraud, Bebb is life with a capital L. He talks about God and to God incessantly. He knows his scripture; he epitomizes the notion that "God moves in mysterious ways." Buechner leaves little doubt that, though Bebb is a charlatan, he is a priest. Through Bebb, the homesick Antonio begins to move toward something that almost looks like hope.

FINISHED WITH Bebb, I'd only begun the Frederick Buechner story. Who would write stories so strikingly, juggling theological themes like grace and salvation and faith? Could the author of these crazy stories filled with hastiness and suffering, exhibitionism and promiscuity really be a Presbyterian minister living on a farm in Vermont?

I learned that Buechner's writing career began long before Bebb, with a dramatic flourish of a novel, A Long Day's Dying, in 1950. Only 24 and fresh out of Princeton, Buechner had written this Salinger-like novel and been shocked by a huge success. His picture was in Newsweek, he was compared to Henry James, and strangers wrote him letters. This novel, though written by a young man whose position on religion could only be labeled vague, displayed a God-hauntedness that is characteristic of much of the fiction of the modern era.