Saturday, January 31, 2009

Books Read in 2009: The Storm, by Frederick Buechner

"It was a miracle, Willow had said, that Violet Sickert had been clever enough to bully Dalton Maxwell into coming to the island for the birthday weekend, and a miracle too that he had let himself be bullied. Violet Sickert was really not very clever, and Dalton Maxwell was of all men least tractable. Neverthleless it had happened, and by calling it miraculous she sensed the working of some behind-the-scenes power that now and then made things happen in a way that was different from the way they would have happened otherwise. She thought about the death of her first husband as another case in point. Who could have foreseen it--a healthy young man done in by something as ridiculous as having his appendix out? Yet that's the way it had fallen out....Who could say how different her life would have been if he had bounced out of the hospital with nothing more than a small pink scar? At times such as that, the power seemed to work as darkly as some deep-sea current that could suddenly, or so she had heard, drag down to destruction an entire ship and its crew. But at other times it seemed to be almost friendly."--Frederick Buechner, The Storm

Can you ever have too many versions of The Tempest? This is the second one I've read in the past year.

You don't have to have read Shakespeare's play to make sense of the book; it's only loosely based on it; but it does help to give the characters and setting some context. There's an island, although it's a summer resort for the wealthy, and nobody's shipwrecked on it. There's an 70ish man named Kenzie Maxwell who is struggling with events in his past--I suspect he's more or less Frederick Buechner. There are the equivalents of the evil Sycorax (Miss Sickert), the handsome but aimless young prince Ferdinand (Nandy), the monster Caliban (Calvert, whom one character says looks like a werewolf), and the sprite Ariel (Kenzie's windsurfing stepson Averill). There are also traces of Shakespeare in the storm, the boat, strange music in the air--or of the air-- (Rumer Godden also used that heavily in her version), and Kenzie's bathrobe decorated with stars and moons.

One reviewer commented that Buechner spent more time developing his characters than he did really doing anything with them, and I agree that the action and conflict, such as it is, all gets resolved quite quickly in the last few pages of the book. Maybe like a Shakespeare play. But still, I liked it a lot--probably more than anything else I've read this month. I think it's because of the affection he shows towards even his most unsympathetic characters, more even than we'd like him to give some of them. It's also interesting to read yet another book with older-than-average main characters (Jan Karon's Mitford novels come to mind, and The Bone Sharps was another one).

In that and in other ways (the emphasis on fractured or patchwork families, the older brother who can only hold things together if there are no surprises and variations), this book reminds me of some of Anne Tyler's novels. For Buechner, the line is very finely drawn between saints and sinners; in that, his characters are somewhat like Flannery O'Connor's. I also read a review that compared some of his work to that of Charles Williams, but I haven't read Charles Williams so can't give an opinion on that.

You can read the book fairly quickly, but there are things you'll want to come back to--some of the musings about destiny, and the place of what some call the numinous or the fates, some call the workings of God, in the way things turn out.

A postscript: Right after I posted this, Mr. Fixit was listening to Supertramp's album Breakfast in America, and some of the lyrics really jumped out at me in connection with this book. Maybe it's just the clichéed thinking of someone still somewhat mired in the 1980's, but maybe not.

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