By John D. Barbour
Reviewed by Andrew Taylor-Troutman
Resource Publications, 2013, 232 pp.
When the old man hobbles on his cane out to my car after our ninety minute visit to share what’s really been on his mind this whole time, I think of Emily Dickinson’s lines tell all the Truth but tell it slant … The Truth must dazzle gradually / or every man be blind. Whether from anxiety, shame, or trauma, some stories are too glaring to bear our direct gaze. If there is to be a narrative healing, how we tell such truth is as sacred as what we say.
The title of John Barbour’s book, Renunciation, is lifted from another Dickinson poem, and this story opens with an older brother looking back at his childhood, specifically at his younger brother’s near drowning in an ocean riptide. There’s no need for a spoiler alert: we learn quickly that this narrative is about that younger brother, Will, and his estrangement from his family in joining an Indian guru’s religious order, which eventually contributes to his untimely death. This is the plot or fabula as the Russian formalists put it; but the reader’s careful attention will be rewarded by experiencing the syuzhet, or narrative technique. In the novel, Barbour, skillfully weaves his tapestry, flashing back at the family history, spinning an account ever mindful of the powerful undercurrents of faith, pride, and love upon individual psyches and souls.
A major theme of this novel confirms a premise of H. Richard Niebuhr (see The Social Sources of Denominationalism). Niebuhr defined the phenomena of “church” and “sect,” which refers to the process of a small yet impassioned community of devotees breaking away from the established religious body only to conform eventually into yet another embodiment of the institution. This idea is evidenced by the spiritual leaders of Will’s ashram, men and women supposedly enlightened by the Truth of the new way, who are cloaked in the very legalism they claim to have transcended. One easily imagines modern churches through the same lens. Barbour mirrors this historical communal experience within the intimate family picture of adolescent development, as each of the three siblings test the family’s religious values, leaving readers to wonder if they will conform or break away.
Readers witness the story through the dependable eyes of Peter, the aptly named rock on which the story rests. A religious scholar, Peter is to be trusted in such matters as the history of the early church and Lutheran theology. We experience firsthand Peter’s Jacobean-like struggle to wrestle blessing from the dark night of the soul. Throughout these pages, an elder Peter, seasoned with humility, reflects upon mistakes and missteps, including those of his younger self who pulled no punches. This mercy allows the reader to empathize with the family’s grace under their duress.
The father is a Lutheran pastor in Minnesota, but there is precious little of Lake Wobegon’s homespun folklore here. Both this pastor and his wife are erudite speakers regarding their faith and, just as importantly, their lack of certainty. But if the novel has a weakness, it is that their extended conversations at times suffer the drag of external processing. The little sister, Sophie, is true to her name by displaying wisdom, less by what she says and more by what she does, particularly in reaching out to her prodigal brother in that land far away. Just below the narrative surface lies the pull on Peter to become less like his dad and more like his sister, a subplot that intrigued me.
The plot, however, is driven by the motorboat that is Will, his family rocking and reeling in his wake. The most effective truth-telling, at least for me, is not in the family’s discourses with one another but the slanting anecdotes by which Peter relates to Will’s life. For instance, Barbour includes a scene in which Will, recently converted, is burning the treasure trove of childhood artifacts his mother had dutifully saved, things like artwork and letters. In the flame of self-refinement, Will seeks to renounce such a past and forge his new spiritual enlightenment. Peter, however, is incensed, mostly on his mother’s behalf. But she responds that she only desires to assist her children’s development of self, even at the expense of their shared history. As long as Will is not harming himself, she claims, “I will even give him the matches.” Take my recommendation to read the novel and see how that line haunts the story.
The novel’s final scene returns to water, thus completing the narrative arc and binding the two brothers even beyond credo. As Dickinson wrote, Success in circuit lies … The Truth’s superb surprise. It is the capacity to perceive, to behold, to appreciate that which is different in a loved one, and then welcome the mysteries of life which, being mortal, unite us all, which thereby makes Renunciation a story of healing.