Books
4:59 pm
Mon September 7, 2009

"When the Buddha Met Bubba: A Novel," by Richard "Dixie" Hartwell

This clever tale ranges widely, making references not only to Buddhism, the Talmud and Christian foot-washing, but also Cesar Milan, the dog whisperer, and new age ideas such as "wherever you are that is where you are supposed to be."

Dixie Harwell is actually John Lee, raised in Florence and now living in Mentone. Lee has had a very successful career as a psychotherapist, memoirist, and author of seventeen nonfiction books on subjects such as anger management and the difficulty of adult children of alcoholics to commit to long-term relationships.

Now Lee has written a novel, sort of.

"When the Buddha Met Bubba" is not fiction in the conventional sense, although this genre goes way back. Think of John Bunyan's "The Pilgrim's Progress," 1678, in which the Pilgrim Christian has to get through the Slough of Despond and resist the temptations of the Vanity Fair in order to get, finally, to The Celestial City. Or, even further back, think of the fables of Aesop created in Greece in the 6th century B.C., in which the speedy hare may set the pace, but slow and steady wins the race.

"When the Buddha Met Bubba" is then a kind of allegory or fable, with lessons to be learned and a whole lot of amusing sugar to help the medicine go down.

The protagonist, the Bubba, is Billy Bob Coker, of northeast Alabama. Billy Bob is a clich?, but a mess, nevertheless. He drinks beer endlessly, has two failed marriages, his son hates him, he's vulgar, broke, of course, and essentially homeless since the bank even repossessed the pickup truck he was sleeping in. Billy Bob has all the narrowness and prejudices a human can carry and has just about reached bottom. He is rescued by cousin Skeeter who gives him a job at Scottsboro Unclaimed Baggage and lets him sleep in the back.

There occurs a revelation.

Out of an old suitcase, in a flood of white light, came crawling a "half naked oriental" weighing between 250 and 300 pounds, with a "short, coal-black ponytail" wearing a "fancy Nancy pair of black pajamas and funny little black shoes"; his mantra, expressed to Billy Bob many times, is "Trust Me."

He is, of course, the Laughing Buddha, sent back to earth by the Wise Ones to try to save this miserable excuse for a human being.

Our Buddha is named Pu Tai; Bubba will call him Pooh for short.

Pooh has been "assigned" Billy Bob and will take him on a road trip. Life is, as we know, a journey. Their destination, setting out from Scottsboro, is Tuscumbia, more specifically Ivy Green, famous home of Helen Keller.

They begin by getting onto a towboat of which the Captain is a "Pretty old guy with white bushy hair and a mustache that was wild." The Captain's name is Sam?get it??so we are now being taken in a direction not dreamed of by John Bunyan, reincarnation.

The engineer on board is a brilliant black man named Jim, so we also have the transmigration of fictional souls.

The journey is geographical, but also, of course, spiritual. Billy Bob's race prejudice is diminished by meeting Jim, he develops some skill at anger management, and by learning to connect with the humanity of Tom Orr and his gay partner, Billy Noble, who is dying of AIDS, he will move a few steps closer to Nirvana.
The redneck Billy Bob even learns to give and receive love. Pooh is one great life coach.

This clever tale ranges widely, making references not only to Buddhism, the Talmud and Christian foot-washing, but also Cesar Milan, the dog whisperer, and new age ideas such as "wherever you are that is where you are supposed to be."

This work may not be compared favorably to novels by Updike or Roth , but might be discussed in connection with something like "The Celestine Prophecy," a new age novel written in Birmingham, which sold about one billion copies. That would not be a bad thing.

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