(Reprinted with permission from Christianity Today, written by David Stewart.)
Even when Frederick Buechner is at the peak of his form (as he is in this new novel), it is difficult for a reviewer to describe exactly the quality of his work: so undemanding, so unmagisterial, so far removed from the sweeping, expansive style of novelists whose skills are less subtle. Buechner’s distinctive gift lies in giving voice to the streak of ambiguity that runs through human existence. What is certain is that, amid the ambiguity that is our lot, the Almighty is at work, quietly and profoundly.
On the Road with the Archangel is Buechner’s version of the apocryphal Book of Tobit, told from the standpoint of the archangel Raphael. As in the past, Buechner’s terrain is the tragicomic overlap that exists between “the ways of God as understood by men” and “the ways of men as understood by God.”
The desolate prayers of two people set the story in motion. Tobit is a Jew of Nineveh who has lost both his sight and his sense of hope. He implores God to grant him deliverance through death. Sarah is a young woman from a city called Ecbatana. She has fallen under the protection of a demon, Asmodeus, who secretly loves her and who has gruesomely bumped off a succession of seven unwanted fiances, with the result that Sarah has been cast as a murdering sorceress. She too prays for death.
Certain that God will heed his prayer, Tobit wants to ensure that his wife, Anna, and son, Tobias, will be provided for after his death, and so he sends his son on a mission to bring back some of his fortune, left with a friend in a far city. Raphael (now in human form) signs on as a traveling companion and shepherds the young man through everything, including his eventual meeting and marrying Sarah (here is where the answer to the two desperate prayers intersects).
What it adds up to is an unforgettably funny and lovely picture of unlikely Providence, portraying with extraordinary empathy ordinary, flawed folk who at any given moment have only the vaguest idea of what they are doing or of the import of their actions for themselves or others; how much their wills and hearts and desires matter to the Holy One; how their dramas are caught up in his.
Toward the end, when Raphael is about to disclose his true identity, he enjoins Tobias and his wife to live generously in response. “I mean that though you must never tell the secrets of a king ... nothing is more pleasing to the Holy One than when you tell about the secret things he is always doing for people or trying to do if they give him half a chance.... Tell people about those things and never forget them yourself.” Good advice for us, too.
It is the story of a journey and a fish and a boy. It is the story of a demon with hair like a woman’s and a lion’s teeth, and a chatterbox of a wife and a slender, dark-haired girl who loved her father. It is the story of a twitter of sparrows who never for a moment doubted that their chalky droppings were a gift for the world to treasure, and of a dog with the eyes of a saint and a lavender tongue, and of two bags of silver with their seals unbroken. And it is the story of how I got myself up as a young globe-trotter with a stout pair of boots and a sack full of road maps. You will say that they didn’t have such things as stout boots and road maps in ancient Assyria, and the chances are you are right, but when you have seen as many Assyrias come and go as I have, you tend to lose track of details.
—The Archangel Raphael, in On the Road with the Archangel