An Elusive Grace.
Maude McDaniel reviews for theWashington Post, Chicago Tribune, Baltimore Sun, Philadelphia Inquirer, Atlanta Journal, and other publications.
Book Info:THE STORM Frederick Buechner
Publisher:San Francisco: Harper, 1998 199 pp., $18.00
Ambiguity has always marked the deepest insights of Frederick Buechner's fiction. A close relative of the ever-popular contemporary irony, ambiguity has become Buechner's stock in trade through thirty works of fiction and nonfiction, and it is probably the key to his success as a religious writer in the studiedly nonreligious culture of the last half of the twentieth century. Or, then again, maybe not.
For The Storm, his sixteenth novel, is arguably the most ambiguous of all his books and the least successful.
Not thatThe Storm is a bad novel; Buechner does not write bad novels. Although his nonfiction has always been more satisfying to me, displaying a depth, feeling, and literary virtuosity I do not always find in his storytelling, his fiction often does a grand job of understanding the very real inability among intellectual moderns (or postmoderns, if we must be reduced to using these virtually indefinable terms) to commit to religious conviction. Especially if it should demand personal change, the deepest commitment of all.
In a story far too abbreviated for its own good, Kenzie and Dalton Maxwell turn out, in lengthy, scene-setting exposition, to be two elderly brothers who have been estranged for years over a midlife mistake Kenzie made as a volunteer social worker in a runaway shelter in New York City. In dealing with the situation as chairman of the board, Dalton, a lawyer by both personality and occupation, made a typically dense decision leading to widespread exposure of the scandal, and Kenzie has never forgiven him.
Years later, they meet again on Plantation Island. A small outcropping off Florida's Atlantic coast, the island is being developed by a rich and eccentric old misfit, Miss Violet Sickert. Kenzie lives there with his rich wife after a modestly eccentric life of his own, including two previous rich wives and a couple of relatively successful books. His seventieth birthday is coming up, and Willow, his wife, and Bree, his daughter (who is the result of that earlier lapse), plan a party. It is inevitable that Dalton, Miss Sickert's lawyer, will make an unexpected appearance.
These are only the bare bones of the story, however, for the kicker of the book is that it is based on Shakespeare's The Tempest. Kenzie's Prospero, Bree's Miranda, and Dalton's Antonio play to Kenzie's stepson Averill (Ariel), Dalton's stepson Nandy (Fernando), Miss Sickert (Sycorax), and her reputed offspring, the lumpish servant Calvert (Caliban). In The Tempest the goings-on are introduced by a shipwrecker of a storm. In this book, the storm is only a boatwrecker, and it climaxes the proceedings rather than setting them into motion.
Certainly, using the creative imaginings of other writers as a launching pad is not an unusual approach, and Buechner himself has played the game in earlier books including The Entrance to Porlock, which is cued to The Wizard of Oz, and The Son of Laughter, a retelling of the biblical story of Jacob. On the Road with the Archangel bore on the apocryphal story of Tobit and the archangel Raphael, and Godric, an outstanding work nominated for the Pulitzer Prize in 1980, took off from the real-life eleventh-century hermit saint reputed to be England's first lyric poet.
Nevertheless, there would seemingly have to be some reason for Buechner's choice of The Tempest implicit in the ideas within the book itself, some analogy of purpose or point between the two works, some resemblance of substance in theme or conclusion. Nowhere in The Storm do I find any particular resonance of thought or idea that echoes, or opposes, or even causes the reader to reflect on similar matters. The tangible resemblances are there, although all the characters except the brothers and Miss Sickert cry out for deeper development. But where is the Shakespearean debate between nature and nurture (Caliban versus Prospero), art and simplicity (Prospero versus Caliban), virtue and vileness (Miranda or Ariel versus Caliban, or Prospero versus Antonio), self-control and unleashed bestial passion (Fernando versus Caliban)? Both Kenzie and Dalton represent pretty fair arguments for civilized behavior, but poor Calvert is hardly brutish enough to carry the full load of negatives in such confrontations.
Aside from its connection to The Tempest, The Storm suffers from a lack of dramatic contrast within its own characters. True, Kenzie is spontaneous and has a whiff of magic about him, seeming, Prospero-like, to be able to make the weather itself do his bidding, though, of course, that is an ambiguous point. On the other hand, Dalton (unlike Shakespeare's devilish Antonio) is plodding and painfully deliberate, a lawyerly sort of fellow, straitjacketed by a want of empathic imagination.
Both Maxwells seem to retain the capacity to comprehend some facet of the divine, each within his own world. For Kenzie it often takes the form of the "stirring of cool air about his nostrils," whereas Dalton's is a more troublesome sort of awareness, in that seeing "truth itself in the arrangement of salt and pepper on the table" has led to two nervous breakdowns and constant fear of another.
They both need forgiveness for sins of the past, Kenzie from the girl who was Bree's mother, Dalton from Kenzie. The reconciliation between them is accomplished on both sides without much soul-searching, or plumbing of past differences, which are seemingly subsumed in their getting older and wiser. "Older and wiser," in fact, are relevant words for this book, which Buechner has written in his seventies and structured from a play that Shakespeare wrote in the last years of his life. There is a touch of the valedictory here, whether intended or not, a wistful, mellower approach that doesn't accord with the expectations Buechner has built up in his readers through the years, which run more toward the unsettling and irreverent.
Shocking the faithful
Indeed, troubling the faithful (and thereby making them think beyond their emotions about that faith) has always been one of the most important features of Buechner's ongoing literary achievement. As an ordained Presbyterian minister, he would seem to be among those least likely to write novels that upset Christianity's more conventional applecarts, but then he has never been your garden-variety preacher. He came late to the faith, after writing two novels basically unconcerned with religion, including his first novel, the famous A Long Day's Dying. Moving to New York City to tackle writing as a career, he wandered into a nearby church one day and heard a sermon given by the great George Buttrick. Buechner was struck to the soul by a phrase of Buttrick's, that Jesus is crowned in believers' hearts, "among tears and confession and great laughter." "That phrase 'great laughter' absolutely decimated me. I found tears spouting in my eyes," said Buechner once in an interview. In a kind of spiritual shorthand, this sort of unreasonable urge to laughter or tears shows up in his books as a sign of the "subterranean presence of grace in the world that haunts."
In earlier novels including the famous Leo Bebb series, concerning a wild and woolly self-documented evangelist and colorful character, he has gone further, introducing elements that the faithful find shocking. Issues such as incest and adultery, child abuse, and a good deal of general spiritual kookiness are an understandable, if not acceptable, part of the mystery mix of faith. This is not your father's Oldsmobile, but the price paid in terms of lost readers among traditional Christians may be outweighed by increased attention from the doggedly secular critics. They rule the literary roost in our time and wouldn't be caught dead taking a conventional Christian novelist seriously. And here, of course, is the heart of the ambiguity of Buechner's writing: that he so often frames the sacred within the profane, in a kind of "find the hidden faces" exercise, without most readers being the wiser as to where exactly he stands in the picture. Or, more important, where, or perhaps even whether, the God he worships fits into it.
If ambiguity is probably the only stance that will make secular critics pay attention, it is more than just a ploy for Buechner. As much or more than any past generation of believers, the late-twentieth-century Christian finds ambiguity and open-ended questions perhaps the only way to deal with the unique uncertainties posed by our time of unprecedented scientific and technological inquiry and advancement. Never have believers uttered so heartily that masterpiece of religious ambiguity: "Lord, I believe; help thou my unbelief."
The Bebb books enlisted serious comedy in their mission, freeing Buechner as a writer, and his readers as well. The Storm is more earnest, and so are its characters, though no more forthright in their faith, which has, of course, as a function of ambiguity always been a matter of indirection for Buechner people.
Several familiar themes appear briefly: that true believers believe in "everything" (whatever he means by that); that the history of anything is the history of everything; that believing is less boring than nonbelieving; that the transcendent is immanent, though not necessarily imminent. Buechner brings front and center the insightful Barthian comparison of Christianity and its frustrating, fascinating mystery to someone's looking out a window and seeing excited people running around on the ground below, shouting and pointing up at something which the onlooker cannot see, because of the roof overhang.
Evil as banal
Just as Buechner's writing is a superior product of its time, it also typifies some of the shortfalls of its time. Hardly anyone disputes that this has been a century in which perhaps the greatest evil has been visited upon the most people in all of history (due not to more evil intention but to more capable technology). Yet, ironically (yes, perhaps a result of modern ambiguity) the idea of evil as a vast, monstrous power worthy of the opposition of God Himself has dwindled, with each succeeding atrocity, down into some one of many versions of banality. This is presented either in actual theory, as in Hannah Arendt's famous thesis, or by implication, as in Freudian potty-training epics, or some of modern education's child-raising theories. I don't decry any of these, for all of them arose to correct specific wrongs, and all have something of value to tell us about the nature of evil.
Nevertheless, Sycorax, Miss Sickert's Shakespearean prototype, was as wicked a witch as ever there was. Antonio was a dragon of evil who could not stop plotting, and in whom trust only begat falsehood. Yet Miss Sickert is more to be pitied than hated, and Dalton is a pussycat. Somehow the Great Beast seems to have turned, in the view of the thinkers of our time, into a forlorn creature, a little scruffy perhaps but endearing and possibly even cuddly underneath. It takes a heap of ambiguity to water down the true problem of evil as Buechner's novels do. Yet, I understand the motivation, and, goodness knows, there is precedent for it in the Bible itself, that hotbed of ambiguity, where God the Avenger rejoices with His angels in heaven more over such lost sheep as, say, Hitler and Stalin (should they be found at last) than over you and me. Nevertheless, I have to feel ambivalent about Buechner's ambiguity.