MY ZEN TEACHER ONCE TOLD ME when I was having trouble hearing his lectures (I was a monk for three years after leaving the Peace Corps and was deaf), that his words weren’t so important; what was more important was the mood. I feel the same holds for Roland Merullo’s Breakfast with Buddha.
Spiritual wisdom is a hard thing to get across. In addition to being a subtle and loaded thing, it is also about the end or at least finding a route to the end of personal drama.
Which puts it in direct opposition to the novel. Because novels at least orthodox ones rely upon the tension of plot and character. We grow attached to individuals as they blunder across the pages and worry for them and hope they will be ok. So to pass along spiritual lessons in the novel form is, I think, one of the hardest tests for an author.
In Breakfast with Buddha, Merullo attempts to pass this test. Merullo is a beautifully talented writer. He’s published at least seven books and they are full of great feeling, but convey that feeling humbly and respectfully. Unlike the likes of a Saul Bellow or a Gary Shteyngart, who engage in breathless verbal pyrotechnics to arrive at the emptiness and futility their characters sense at the heart of things, Merullo generally starts with that emptiness, and then, with modest, grounded prose finds it full of hope. I find that his prose reflects sincere spiritual practice there’s no neediness, no unnecessary fireworks. He’s sharing what he knows, instead of shouting or preaching it. Merullo was thirty-nine before his first book was published and in each of his books since then one can sense the patience of what must have been years of apprenticeship.
Does this background make for great writing? In Merullo’s case yes, undoubtedly. Does it make for a great novel? Not so clear. I approached Breakfast with Buddha with trepidation for the reasons above and I still can’t say if it worked as a novel. But it’s a beautiful, moving and even necessary book.
It’s simple in plot and execution: a middle-aged man, Otto Ringling, is tricked into driving Volya Rinpoche, his sister’s spiritual guru, across the country. Otto’s parents have died suddenly in a car crash near their home in rural North Dakota, and he is headed there from New York to tie up loose ends. He and Volya leisurely drive across the two lane country highways of middle America, stopping here and there for lectures, Americana (bowling, swimming, miniature golf) or most often, food (Otto is a publisher of food books). Along the way they talk, don’t talk, watch the scenery, get lost in their thoughts and listen to the radio and its constant stream of bullying invective.
Volya is beyond personal conflicts, and Otto is a man with no monetary complaints, a satisfying home life, and a lovely and loving family so almost all the novel’s drama comes from Otto’s trepidation about accepting the wisdom Volya offers. Which doesn’t always work a few too many chapters seem to end on the note of “Volya had a point but I wasn’t ready for it yet” but when it does work, it does so in a subtle, backdoor way that catches you by surprise. The simplicity of the setup, the humility of the narration, Otto’s ordinariness and his understandable doubt, allows for the book’s wisdom to take root on Otto and on the reader.
“Surely,” narrates Otto, “there were phonies and charlatans claiming to know The Way. But at some point you had to stop closing yourself off because of them. At some point you had to risk the ridicule of the mob, of your own internalized voices, and try to see clearly what had been set in front of you in this life, and try to act on that as bravely and honestly as you could, no matter what kind of rules you had been living by.”
Though one can question Breakfast’s success as a novel, question its set up, or question some of its teachings, one can’t question the beautiful mood it leaves on you. One can’t complain about its ultimate message: be good to those around you; try not to make too much of a mess of things. And the closing image is one of such sudden, unexpected grace that I wiped my eyes and reread the last chapter several times to figure out how it arrived there, and still can’t say.
Josh Swiller’s first book, The Unheard: A Memoir of Deafness and Africa, a recounting of his Peace Corps experience, was published this month. He is currently on his book tour.