Everlasting Is the Past
Walter Wangerin Jr.
Rabbit Room Press, 2015
Paul J. Pastor
The Suspension of Disbelief
Fred Buechner, in the introduction to his own (second) memoir, Now and then, wrote: "if you tell your own story with sufficient candor and concreteness, it will be an interesting story and in some sense a universal story." Buechner further casts his memoir as "a call to prayer." (Such calls are universal.)
The effectiveness of such writings as stories is not based on the extravagance or drama of a life itself, but of the unseen meanings given by God to the events recounted. Augustine's libertinism, Julian's simple, shining vision of a universal "hazelnut," Lewis's childhood world of "Boxen" (populated by proto-Narnian talking animals), L'Engle's house at Crosswicks—all become shared symbols, shared milestones. The more specific the telling—the more personal the memory—the more resonance builds in the soul of the reader. And, elevating such books to the status of devotional literature, the consistent sightings of God, walking through a life like a man walks in his garden. The murmur of his voice. In each life, each story, this whisper, in a hundred permutations, from a thousand throats: There is meaning. There is grace. You are beloved. These testimonies give us hope that such a hand, such a voice, might be closer to our lives than we have felt. They call us to prayer.
Wangerin begins Everlasting at eleven p.m., driving a yellow VW convertible in a snowstorm. (This scene, in woodcut style, forms the cover image of the book. It is unclear if the car's destination is a mountain or a chasm.) A first-year seminary student, he has just lost his faith, or a severely Lutheran boyhood version of it. For him, losing that faith means losing everything: family, calling, more. He considers suicide.
The book is the story of the journey from a child's faith, to a man's faith, to a childlike man's faith. While that student drives down the winter highway, Everlasting flashes, returns to begin at Wangerin's childhood, then moves from his early to middle life—roughly from birth, well into his pastoral tenure at Grace, a colorful and beautiful (and aptly named) inner-city congregation in Evansville, Indiana.
Candor is here, though of an often cold, Lutheran variety that seems little warmed by letting the light in. Concreteness too, and wonderfully written—images teem of skittering leaves, of doll-like corpses, of chickens scrabbling in the Wangerin backyard. His prose is miniaturized, fitted like clock parts, each sentence turning the next. Just when you think you are witnessing an over-written sentence, he expertly surprises you. The book is paradoxically both spare and extravagant, and it will not be to everyone's taste. It's high craft, but he avoids pretense, and it works, as Dun Cow did. It's distilled, dense. Delicate. I love it.
Still, Everlasting is not without its flaws. At moments it feels writer-based, intangibly lacking a clear understanding of who is reading. One often feels witness to Walt writing to Walt. Sectioned into three movements ("The Seventh Seal," "Ye Watchers and Ye Holy Ones," and "Supernal Anthems Echoing,") the narrative's pacing occasionally glosses over large timespans.
Stories abound, good stories, of doubt and faith, losing and finding oneself, the practical, personal, economic, racial, and family tensions of a pastor and father whose diverse family moves into a tough black neighborhood in the inner city during the height of White Flight.
We get great stories, and a potent arc of a man finding (literally and symbolically) a home in Grace, but we don't get time for Wangerin's words to steep. Additionally, we get much of Walt the child, student, and pastor, but nearly nothing of Wangerin the writer and the artist—the very person many readers hope to find here. Yes, the one is the other, but besides a few fleeting references to early poetry and the Dun Cow's release, nearly all connections to his best-known works are themselves underground. Further, it's hard to argue that the book's not just too short. For all the sense and intention these omissions may have, by the time I was deeply relating with him, the book was over. It did not end too late to become universal, but it ended too soon to live up to its own power. As a story, it has more potential energy than kinetic, though the kinetic is powerful. (The fact that I wanted more is testament to the quality of the book.)