Book review: ‘Breakfast With Buddha,’ by Roland Merullo
March 8, 2014
It is often said that it is in humor that the truth dwells. Comedians claim a rare position, in that they have fairly free rein to poke fun at serious subjects. It is also said that those with a sense of humor are often more intuitive and insightful. To find wit in the banal or conventional themes of life is truly a gift, and it requires an open mind and a willingness to approach a subject from different angles.
Author Roland Merullo is clearly one such person. Tackling religion and spirituality in a respectful manner is not unique, of course, but approaching the subject with easy banter and cleverness is unusual and refreshing. His novel "Breakfast With Buddha" finds that balanced sweet spot, opening up the story to believers and skeptics alike.
From the outset, "Breakfast With Buddha" brings to mind those masters of human observation, Bill Bryson and Mark Twain. Self-deprecating and filled with nostalgia, the novel follows the unlikely journey of Otto, your average middle-aged, middle-class American male, as he drives from New York City to North Dakota to settle his deceased parents' estate.
That scenario, in itself, could provide enough fodder for spiritual musings and philosophical contemplation, as the "open road" in literature has long been the symbolic palette for metaphor and meaning. But, it is the presence of Otto's surprise driving companion that really takes "Breakfast With Buddha" to a higher plain. His flighty sister foists upon him Volya Rinpoche, a spiritual teacher hoping to open a meditation center on the family property.
It is the evolution of this unlikely scenario that plays out as the two journey westward and Otto's plan to put the pedal to the metal on the open highway (in other words, regular American-style driving) is abandoned as the journey begins to take on a more leisurely pace and a deeper meaning.
With humor and a good bit of swearing, a modern-day vision quest commences, with teacher and student personified in both characters, each learning from the other about life, expectations, beliefs and letting go of prejudices and stereotypes. As the miles fall away behind them, Otto's protective wall around his ingrained belief system begins to erode and he finds the experience both alarming and alluring.
So as not to be one-sided, the author sidesteps the trap of having the journey become a weary sermon or rebuke directed from the spiritual leader to the unresponsive and close-minded American by creating in Rinpoche an easiness and an openness to learning his own lessons. Otto happily doles them out as they travel the winding highways.
Merullo manages to weave in philosophical introspection over games of miniature golf and bowling and morning oatmeal and hash browns.
Spirituality becomes palatable and subtle as the pages of "Breakfast With Buddha" unfold, leaving the reader happily chuckling over the wonders of the universe and of man's place within it.
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