The Son of Laughter by Frederick Buechner
The beautiful always surprise us. Everything else in the world we expect as we expect weariness at the day’s end and sun at waking. (171)
I’ve read a bit of Frederic Buechner, though not nearly as much as he deserves. Godric remains a favorite. In that novel, I especially love the way Buechner writes the prose with a cadence that makes it feels like I’m reading a poem or a song.
This latest, Son of Laughter, was recommended by a good friend, and it tells the story of the Biblical patriarch Jacob, the son of Isaac (whose name means laughter), the son of Abraham, who was a friend of God. The story is familiar—or at least the bones of the story are—to anyone who has read the Old Testament account. But what is truly wonderful about this book is the way Buechner takes the familiar Sunday school account and restores the foreignness and the strangeness that our familiarity with the story has worn away.
Buechner takes the reader back to the earthy, alien, near-savage, almost pagan reality of a dusty tribe of desert nomads who have a peculiar relationship with an unusually singular deity. And he does this while remaining true to the source material yet simultaneously resisting the urge to color the entire account with an obvious Christological teleology (as would no doubt be the case in your standard Family Christian Bookstore retelling).
Instead Buecher tells the story of a tribe learning about this deity they call only “The Fear,” trying to understand (in the midst of great pain and violence) what the Fear’s promise that they will grow to be a great “luck” to all the people of the earth means to them. Along the way, Buechner’s perspective continually reverse-telescopes the view of Jacob and his situations, reestablishing distance between our world and theirs. Surprisingly, this helps explain some things (like circumcision) that seem inexplicable to our modern sensibilities.
The moon is a shepherd with a pitted face. He herds the stars. (56)
The narrative becomes strained in the second portion of the book, where the reader moves from the perspective of Jacob/Isreal to follow Joseph’s time in Egypt. Buechner still tells the story through Jacob’s perspective, which enhances the dream-like distance. Yet this portion remains integral to the story, because the consummation of the promise is so wrapped up in what happens to Joseph in Egypt.
The book ends without any sentimental reassurances about God or his promise to Israel. In fact, in one conversation Jacob admits to his son that the Fear’s promise is only for the living and that Jacob does not know what the Fear has in store for the dead. Buechner leaves the reader with only the glimmer of a greater hope on the horizon. Along the way though, he expertly shows the story of the patriarchs through eyes that make them simultaneously incredibly alien and richly alive.
The Fear gives to the empty-handed, the empty-hearted. In return it is only the heart’s trust that the Fear asks. Trust him though you cannot see him and he has no silver hand to hold. Trust him though you have no name to call him by, though out of the black night he leaps like a stranger to cripple and bless. (184)