|ROLAND MERULLO (File/The Boston Globe)|
Breakfast With Buddha
By Roland Merullo
Algonquin Books of Chapel Hill, 323 pp., $23.95
Life as a journey might be our oldest metaphor. Just ask any pilgrim. And the open road is the most resilient of America's myths, or maybe, in the face of suburban sprawl and clogged interstates, we should say its most stubborn. "O public road," Whitman sang so long ago, "you express me better than I can express myself." We so love the promise and the romance of the highway that we'll go anywhere. And we know that sometimes the journey is the destination. Just ask Huckleberry Finn. Ask any adrenaline-cranked hipster. In 1957, Jack Kerouac, from Lowell, chronicled in fiction a series of actual trips he took with his incendiary muse Neal Cassady in "On the Road." Now 50 years later, Roland Merullo, from Revere, chronicles the journey of Otto Ringling and his placid and incorruptible muse, the eponymous Buddha, Volya Rinpoche, as they drive from New Jersey to Stark County, N.D., Otto's hometown. Otto's going home again to settle the estate of his parents, recently killed in a most tragic and American way - struck by a drunk driver at a country crossroads.
Otto describes himself as "Mr. Ordinary - good husband, good father, average looking, average height, middle-of-the-road politics." He's a straight-laced Protestant from the heartland, our 21st-century, white-bread Everyman. He's got a secure and enviable Manhattan job editing food books, a charming house in a prosperous suburb, a sweet wife, still sexy after all these years, two bright and talented children, and a faithful mixed-breed dog. He's living the American Dream that guys like Kerouac's Sal Paradise secretly longed for but would not allow themselves to have - the price was too high, after all. Otto has it, and he's afraid to lose it.
Rinpoche, a Siberian polyglot and former political prisoner, is a holy man and spiritual mentor with a puckish sense of humor. At the end of the concrete trail for Rinpoche stands the empty Ringling farmhouse, which has "a certain unmistakable spiritual quality to it," and which Otto's "nutcase" sister Cecilia, a tarot-card reader, wants to donate to Rinpoche. It's selfless and whimsical Cecilia who arranges this improbable journey into one man's past and another's future. And there's more to Cecilia than meets the innocent eye.
Once the reluctant Otto agrees to travel with Rinpoche, he decides he'll show his Eastern friend as much as he can of his beloved country. Otto's America may seem a bit disappointing in its focus on amusements - a theme park, a bowling alley, a miniature golf course, a gambling casino, cushy B&Bs, and gourmet meals at ethnic restaurants - but it does, if we think about it, reflect, however sadly, on the uninspired way that so many of us live our lives these days.
Otto has had precious little trouble in his fortunate life, yet still he finds himself midway on life's journey, lost in dark woods. There's nothing like the sudden death of your parents to rattle you out of your existential complacency. You hear the still, small voice whisper, "You're next, my friend." It's then you realize that, yes, every journey has an end, and we might all be on a one-way cruise to nowhere. In the face of this unnerving possibility, Otto decides that love is his religion - domestic love, love of life - and he wants to shout it to the world, wants to be the Rush Limbaugh, the loud mouth, of love. But Otto can't silence that voice, reminding him that he has lost one family and will eventually, inevitably, lose the other. How will he come to terms with this?
There are a few moments along the way when the narrative reads a bit like a travelogue, and it's at these times when we might think that Merullo has been too loyal to the actual trip he based this novel's itinerary on (as we're told in an author's note). But we also understand that there are two journeys here, and the significant journey is not measured in miles, but in awareness; we know that it is not only the passing scenery out the window we should attend to, but to Otto's inner landscape as well.
There are a few characters in the book who seem more convenient than convincing, most notably a boorish philosophy professor in Duluth, Minn., whose contempt for the "antisolipsistic shoddiness" of Buddhism, the "filly-fally of the East," is embarrassingly evident. He's a too-serviceable straw man whose strident bloviations get deflated by Rinpoche's serenity and candor. "I know the language of kindness," Rinpoche tells the pretentious lout.
Merullo writes with grace and intelligence and knows that even in a novel of ideas it's not the religion that matters, it's the relationship; it's not the concepts, but the people, and here are two intriguing men, one with his eye on the destination and his foot on the pedal, the other who knows that we travel farthest when we are still. You'll enjoy sitting in the back seat of the car as Otto drives on deep into the luminous heart of his childhood. It's a quiet, meditative, and ultimately joyous trip we're on. And it's quite a treat, indeed, to eavesdrop on these two inquisitive and witty gentlemen and hear what they talk about when they talk about life.
John Dufresne's most recent book is the story collection "Johnny Too Bad."