The Book of Buechner: A Journey Through His Writings
Westminster John Knox Press, 2007
408 pp., $30.00
Reviewed by David Stewart
Readers of Frederick Buechner have waited a long time for a study of his work on the scale offered by this volume, and Dale Brown (formerly of Calvin College) is in as good a position as anyone to take on the project: he has written on Buechner extensively, and has recently launched the Buechner Institute at King College in Tennessee.
Two primary convictions guide Brown's explorations: first, that Buechner's own life story can be fruitfully explored through his fiction ("all approaches to Buechner have to pass through the novels"); and second, that there is an essential unity of theme and purpose throughout Buechner's novels ("Buechner's attention to the ambiguities of human existence is the persistent chord echoing throughout his work, and the infrequent glimmering of hope is the persistent conclusion").
The industry and thoroughness evident in this work are admirable. Brown deftly summarizes the characters and plot lines of each of Buechner's novels (some of the earliest of which I confess to having never read), and has tracked down and absorbed pretty well every extant review of Buechner's work, quoting frequently (some may find too liberally) from these sources. His diligent use of archival material sheds still further light on Buechner's writing and editing. And, by way of suggesting points of influence on or similarity to Buechner, Brown's allusions to a broad range of other literary works are prolific.
Of all of Buechner's traits, it is his sense of ambiguity that readers react to most strongly—either drawn to or put off by precisely this same thing. For readers who are weary of doctrinal contention and bombast, a little Buechner is just what is wanted; others, possessing a greater need for certainty and precision in belief, are prone to find Buechner too introspective, sure of far too little, and hence unsatisfying. Whether we consider this a strength or a flaw, it must be agreed that this ambivalence is integral both to who Buechner is and to how he writes. The Book of Buechner rings truest when it takes Buechner on his own ambivalent terms, less so when it seems to want Buechner to be more consistent, more sure of himself, than he really is.
To put it differently, even a reading of Buechner's fiction as expansive and as probing as this one may not end up charting a "journey" (see the subtitle) whose objectives are clear and settled from the outset of the author's career, or one without its share of improbable (though always intriguing) detours. Brown might very well agree. What does it tell us, after all, if a deep–seated sense of life's ambiguity (Buechner's characteristic respect for the relationship between faith and doubt) is evident in his early as well as his later fiction? If we find solitary pilgrim–figures or sort–of–saints appearing at various phases of Buechner's fictional development? If themes of grief and loss, the sacred within the profane (and vice–versa) recur in various guises throughout such a long and intriguing career? We could say that Buechner has been consistent in his faithful uncertainty, in his wandering, in his longing for home.
David Stewart is director of library rervices at Luther Seminary in St. Paul, Minnesota.
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