Her twin brother Antonio has brought to her hospital room her two young sons 12-year-old Chris and 10-year-old Tony.
Her ex-husband Charlie, whose idea of a good time is getting a lot of sleep, opts out of the visit, just as later he will opt out of having much of a funeral for Miriam.
Charlie Blaine didn’t want to make any fuss about death any more than he wanted to make any fuss about life. His idea was to get through with both as quietly and painlessly as possible, with plenty of long naps along the way.
The two boys, awkward and clueless, don’t know what to say, and neither do Miriam and her brother. The visit fritters along with its only bright point a sudden and excited recapitulation by Tony of the Abbott and Costello movie he’d seen on TV the night before.
Later, though, when it is time to go, Tony seems wilted, giving an enormous yawn and knuckling his eyes. Perhaps it is because this action reminds Miriam of her ex-husband or of her own approaching death, but she reacts sharply, directly.
“Now you stay awake, Tony,” she says. “You just keep your eyes open and stay awake.”
Wrestling with God
Frederick Buechner’s The Book of Bebb is about staying awake.
Which is another way of saying that it’s about being alive. About living life with a fullness that accepts everything about human existence — its joy and its strife, its confusion and its insights, its loneliness and its community and its messiness and its deep, essential mystery.
The Book of Bebb, published in 1979, is composed of four short novels: Lion Country (1971), Open Heart (1972), Love Feast (1974) and Treasure Hunt (1977).
It’s a comic tale that grapples with the issues of life, death, pain and belief. Picture wisecracking Robin Williams as Jacob in the Genesis story, wrestling all night with God.
The title refers to Leo Bebb — a former Bible salesman, an ex-con and the pastor of a Florida church and ordination-mill that operates just inside the line of the law, and maybe a little over the line at times. He is “a fleshy, scrubbed man in a tight black raincoat with a narrow-brimmed hat, dimly Tyrolean, on the top of his head.”
And he may be from outer space. Or an angel.
A walking live wire
Bebb isn’t an alien or one of the heavenly host, but it seems that way to some of the characters around him because he appears larger-than-life. Yet, that isn’t true either.
Bebb is simply and fully alive. He’s a walking live wire, jerking and jumping with electricity. He’s got the power of electricity. And the danger too. He is perpetually out of control, the antithesis of everything that is simpering and sappy about religion. He is a preacher and a schemer, a man who knows the Bible forward and back and likes to make a buck.
And The Book of Bebb isn’t really about him.
The book is really about its narrator Antonio Parr, a 34-year-old Manhattanite, known as Tono, who, as the story opens, is floating through his days, living on a small trust fund.
Actually, even more, the book is about the unanswerable questions that you and I and every human being face: What does life mean? How should I live? Why should I do whatever I do? Is this all there is?
These are the questions that Tono has to confront in The Book of Bebb on our behalf, as our Everyman.
When Tono meets Bebb, he is in the midst of his “scrap-iron period.”
Old ratchets, wheels, tongs, strappings, hasps, hinges and nails, whatever I could lay my hands on I would paint with Rustoleum black and then assemble in various interesting and I hoped entertaining ways.
This has followed his “teaching period” and his “writing period” in which none of his four attempts at a novel ever got past page 34. He is in a frustratingly chaste relationship with Ellie, “the lily maid of my long bachelorhood.”
And, in his vague way, he has gotten his ordination certificate from Bebb’s church and arranged a meeting with the preacher, thinking that he will write a journalistic expose about the operation.
Instead, Bebb explodes into Tono’s life — and he explodes Tono’s comfortable, cushioned cocoon to smithereens.
Buechner, now 88, is a Presbyterian minister and theologian who has written more than a dozen novels, some of which have been finalists for the National Book Award and the Pulitzer Prize. He was in his late 30s and early 40s when he wrote The Book of Bebb.
In the novel, his writing is often smart-alecky and poignant at the same time — sort of like human existence. Consider the letter to Jesus written by Bebb’s drink-addled, guilt-oppressed wife Lucille which reads, in part:
[Bebb] says we are all washed clean in the Blood of the Lamb and so on and so forth.
One time when I said to him was Bebb, the only thing I’ve been washed in is the shit of the horse.
You know what he did? [Bebb kissed her injured little finger.] That was when I first thought maybe he was from Outer Space.
Mr. Jesus, is that where you are from too?…
P.S. I haven’t said a single thing I wanted to.
Inviting people to a parable
This is a book infused with the Bible, often in wacky ways, such as when Bebb hosts a Thanksgiving dinner at a hall on the Princeton University campus, expecting 200 or more.
Only about 20 people show up, so, when Bebb ascends a staircase to greet this handful, he mentions the story that Jesus told about a bridegroom who had a lot of no-shows to his wedding feast and sent out people to drag in anyone they could find to help celebrate. And that’s what Bebb does.
As for me. [Tono reports,] I ended up by the Palmer Square tiger full of claret and half convinced that either I was dreaming the whole thing or was having a nervous breakdown. How did you invite people to a parable?
When a full crowd has been assembled, Bebb preaches, “The Kingdom of Heaven is like a great feast. That’s the way of it. The Kingdom of Heaven is a love feast where no one is a stranger. Like right here.”
Yet, as Tono exemplifies throughout this book, each of us feels alone, feels empty and unseen. As Brownie, Bebb’s right-hand man, tells Tono:
“We are all of us seeking a homeland, dear, even though we have only seen and embraced it from afar. We are all of us strangers and pilgrims on the earth.”
We are even strangers to ourselves. In a vision-dream, Tono learns his true name — and then promptly forgets it:
On the dollar there was something written, and — how do I say it? What was written on it wasn’t Antonio Parr or Tono or Bopper or Sir or any of the other names I’ve been called by various people at various times in my life, and yet it was my name. It was a name so secret that I wouldn’t tell it even if I remembered it, and I don’t remember it.
We are all, like Tono, trying to remember our real name.
For Buechner’s characters, living life far from that homeland requires faith that there is a home. And it requires a bravery and a willingness to be seen, undefended, unmasked. To live life unguarded.
Throughout The Book of Bebb, sin isn’t something wrong that a character does, as bad and as evil as that might be. Much worse is what Charlie Blaine does, sleeping away his time, wasting his life.
But what’s the right way to live?
Emotionally bruised and battered by circumstances and his own bad choices, Tono says ruefully to Sharon, his wife and Bebb’s daughter: “Your life isn’t something to think about too much. You just live it the best way you can.” And her response is:
“When you start thinking about it, you’re sunk. It’s like Mickey Mouse, the way he can walk off the edge of a cliff and go right on in thin air without thinking a thing about it. Soon as he looks down and starts thinking about it, that’s when he starts falling.”
Sort of like Peter, walking on water with Jesus.
In other words, the right way to live is to live.
Similarly, for Buechner’s characters, the right thing about faith is to believe. The specifics aren’t all that important.
At one point, Bebb says, “Antonio, I believe everything.” When Tono responds that he makes it sound easy, Bebb answers, “Don’t kid yourself. It’s hard as hell.”
“A saved sinner”
The answer to living is learning to live without answers….at least, without final answers.
And learning to live with your guard down.
One example, mentioned several times in The Book of Bebb, are the final words of Jesus on the cross.
After hours of agony, he shouts in Aramaic, his native language, “Eloi, Eloi, lama sabachthani.” Which means, “My God, my God, why have you forsaken me?”
And then he dies.
This is Jesus laying himself and his feelings bare. He is not play-acting despair. He is despairing. He is saying: “This is who I am at this moment. See me.”
Bebb lays himself bare often in this novel, but most particularly — and most literally — on a day in Miami when he exposes his genitals to a small group of children. This is why he ends up in prison for five years.
He tells Tono and Sharon that it had seemed to him that if, somehow, those kids could have seen him — really seen him — and accepted him, he would have been made whole:
“Those kids. Talk about your angels, why the eyes those kids had, they were the eyes of angels if I ever saw one, and their kid faces and their bare feet and the way they were hollering around out there in the sunshine — they were having them a time like all the good times a man ever had when he was a kid himself rolled into one. A good time, Sharon, a time with goodness and fun and bare feet skittering all through it. I was watching them play [a game] back of that seafood place, and it come over me all in a minute.
“I had this feeling if just one split second those kids would have turned those eyes they had onto me the shameful way I was laid bare in front of them and not gone and mocked at me or tore off home, just looked at me with all that fun and beauty they had in those eyes of theirs, why I’d have walked away from that place a saved sinner.”
Bebb acknowledges that it was “a fool thing to do,” and he fully understands why he was sent to prison.
Yet, in seeking connection and understanding, in seeking acceptance and fullness, in hoping for someone to see him truly and fully — even with his “shameful” parts — Bebb in his flashing is like Jesus in his despair on the cross.
Late in the novel, Tono has another extended vision-dream in which Jesus appears as the Lone Ranger, and he is about to marry Rose Trionka, a woman from Bebb’s church, transfigured, “vast, white, glittering like a turreted city with pennants flying from the battlements and bunting streaming from the windows.”
And, like the Christian church as the bride of Christ, Rose is all of us.
And everyone Tono has ever known, everyone he has ever loved, is there.
And Rose is all of them.
The Lone Ranger and Rose Trionka were standing against the sky. The Lone Ranger reached out and raised the veil from his bride’s face. Then he reached up and took hold of the corner of his mask. When he pulled it off at last, the light was so overwhelming that for a few moments, like Emily Dickinson “I could not see to see.”
That is what we want to see. And that is why we want to be seen.
And that’s why it’s important to “stay awake.”
Patrick T. Reardon