Until recently, I had never read anything by Frederick Buechner. Because some of his most ardent admirers are people who I highly respect, I decided I should give him a try. My local library only has one book by him – The Storm – and so I tore through the first half riding across Montana returning from a long road trip. I finished up the second half over several days, slowed down a little by a quick rerun of The Tempest to catch the parallels.
I’m sure there have been plenty of reviews detailing all the ways Buechner masterfully draws from Shakespeare’s play, so I won’t go into that here. But in case you haven’t read The Storm, let me give you a two sentence summation: Kenzie, a writer and a ragamuffin, is well into old age, living off his wife’s money in his wife’s home on an island off the Florida coast. His past catches up with him in the form of his estranged brother, his illegitimate daughter, and a massive Atlantic storm, which all converge on the night of his birthday party.
The most striking thing about the book, as I found it, was the reality of the characters – they felt genuine, alive, human. Buechner applies Shakespeare’s method of giving each character a certain standout quality – Kenzie with his hair and mustache and too large face and brooding nature, Dalton with his hyper-organization and perfect dress sense – while at the same time filling out their personalities and histories. Each becomes a very real person with flaws and gifts and unresolved struggles.
This is where the story shines. It is a story about redemption and reconciliation, but isn’t contrived. There is no climactic moment in which two characters finally speak their peace and issue forgiveness to each other in eloquently scripted words, a la the thirty minute sitcom approach. It is simply authentic and mirrors our own experience. Sometimes the things we’ve held on to for so long simply fade in significance when we are confronted with the deeper realities of life on the fallen earth. In the end, this makes Kenzie’s statement about a happy ending in a world not famous for them all the more moving.
The Storm is a beautifully messy book. The story is well crafted, and there are many passages where Buechner shows his mastery of language. Yet, he breaks all the “writing rules” with abandon (“Show don’t tell! How do you get away with whole chapters without dialogue?”). There is no clear resolution to the story, it just sort of ends. And though it has clear religious overtones throughout, it ends with ambiguity in the message, at least as far as spiritual matters are concerned.
Yet, that beautiful messiness itself conveys the message at the heart of the book – that life is not often neat and tidy. It does not often follow straight roads, and those roads are seldom smooth. It is full of trials we don’t expect, graces we don’t deserve, and moments where the mundane is shattered by the imposition of the miraculous. It is not famous for happy endings, but once in a while the pattern is broken, to remind us who is guiding all things to the incredible ending he has in store. It is like a book that doesn’t follow the rules. It isn’t always pretty, and sometimes it is painful, but at the end there is peace.