Frank Schaeffer, rebel son of the prominent Presbyterian minister who founded a ministry in Switzerland called L'Abri (the shelter), has written his second novel about Calvin Becker, rebel son of a prominent Presbyterian minister who founds a ministry in Switzerland called L'Arche (the ark). Autobiographical? No, no, says the disclaimer, this is fiction. Granting that unlikely premise, Saving Grandma still fails miserably.
Coleridge said that "a willing suspension of disbelief" is required for a reader to engage his imagination in a poem or story. In this novel, we are asked to empathize with a 15-year-old protagonist/narrator, who, though functionally illiterate, is so precocious that he can critique fine points of Calvinism and even practice medicine successfully (he saves Grandma's life though his parents fail to save her soul) without training or a license. As the story develops, the reader's disbelief is not merely suspended unwillingly, but positively hanged by the neck until dead.
Calvin is constantly closing his eyes to indulge in autoerotic fantasies. In fact, his eyes are closed to any redeeming qualities in other characters. His father, the Rev. Ralph Becker, is described by Calvin as an apelike creature with "thick forearms and a wide, flat nose" who terrorizes his family with sullen "moods" and violent temper tantrums. Elsa, the longsuffering wife who married beneath her station, is possessed with religious fervor. There are two sisters: Janet, the angry tattletale, and Rachael, the goody two shoes. Grandma, Ralph's mother, is a one-dimensional, foulmouthed atheist who comes to stay with the Beckers when she breaks her hip.
The characters are so poorly drawn as to be a stereotypical cartoon dysfunctional family like the Simpsons-Ralph is Homer, Elsa is Marge, Rachael is Lisa, and Calvin is Bart, the loveable scamp. Trouble is, Calvin isn't loveable. He emerges as a chronic liar who points out everybody's hypocrisy, then hypocritically becomes enraged when lies are told against him.
All this might be fixable, but Mr. Shaeffer doesn't-or maybe can't. The entire narrative is written from the perspective of a boy, with no overlay of adult reflection. We get scenes and reactions raw and undiluted, with no "emotion recollected in tranquillity." Calvin is a rebel when the book begins, and he is a rebel when the book ends. Nowhere does the adult Calvin look back on his experience; nowhere does a mature mind impose a control over the narration. On the evidence of the story, one must conclude that Calvin never grows up.
Perhaps this is due to his father-fixation. Calvin hates his Dad, but in every respect his character is determined by the father in terms of opposites: Ralph is educated, Calvin is illiterate; Ralph is harsh, Calvin sensitive; Ralph is Christian, Calvin pagan; Ralph is logical, Calvin imaginative; Ralph likes plain food, Calvin is an epicure. In the climax and denouement of the book, Calvin runs away to Portofino, Italy, to seek out his English girlfriend Jennifer, but even there he is mentally preoccupied with his father, running from him but unable to find freedom.
In this pagan manifesto, Calvin has truly escaped from reason. Adrift in the world, how shall he then live? Will the next book show us how Calvin grows up and becomes a novelist? Not likely.
As for the author of this supposedly non-autobiographical novel, one can pray that he will mature, go on to write authentic fiction, and understand the real spiritual legacy of his father.