This 2007 novel was an easy way to consider Eastern Religions, learn about the culture of America and Asia, and enjoy a darned good read, all at the same time. I had heard about this book from students, bloggers, and book club friends, but I’d never gotten around to reading it. When I saw it displayed (in large print) at my local library, I pounced on it and took it home, beginning to read that night. I assumed it would be a fast read, but some of the philosophical ideas caused me to digest it slowly, putting it aside fairly frequently to muse over some idea or concept.
The plot is fairly simple, but definitely original. Otto Ringling, middle-aged father, editor by occupation, makes a car trip from New York City where he lives and works to the North Dakota farmhouse in which he was raised. His “flaky/hippie” sister was supposed to accompany him. When he arrives at her home, a few hundred miles from his, she introduces him to Volya Rinpoche, and she tells her bemused brother the man will accompany him instead. After much grousing, Otto agrees to take the shaved-headed, saffron-robed “priest” along. Otto decides to drive this guru/mystic of a “combined Eastern religion” on his road trip, visiting “quintessentially American landmarks” and he includes for the benefit of his passenger, stops at a bowling alley, a miniature golf course, and the two men consume many meals as diverse as America itself. On the second day, Otto discovers that Rinpoche is a noted author and he intends to make many stops during the trip for speaking engagements and book signings. What Otto ends up making is journey of self-discovery, as he finds and accepts “his own true heart.”
Meruello’s writing style is spectacular. As Otto and Rinpoche leave an Indian restaurant, they see hanging in a hallway, “a painting of a bluish goddess…with dozens of arms.” Rinpoche says, “There is a prophesy that this goddess will come soon to save us from something very bad. Maybe she is your niece.” (Otto had told Rinpoche his niece was a very laid-back, spiritual person when Rinpoche and he were talking about reincarnation over dinner.) “Maybe she will be…See, there are symbols in the painting–to know them you have to study them many years–but the symbols say it is so that she is coming now.”
Otto’s response, after hearing this are as follows: “I’d had moments when the apocalypse seemed imminent–the start of another war, the arising of another nuclear-armed despot, the boiling over of yet another ethnic conflict–but they were always followed by the feeling everything was going to be fine…This was America, we were going to move forward, always, toward some greater, richer, more pleasurable future…Things could shake us–wars, riots, demonstrations, assassinations, terrorist attacks–but the enormous momentum of our settled and well-fed middle class and the enormous reservoir of our goodness, generosity, brains, and energy, these would pull us through.”
Rinpoche replies, “Very dangerous time now. Not dangerous for our bodies, you know, to die, not that. Dangerous for us the other way, Spiritual…But now, soon, it will be better.”
“Good, I’m glad,” says Otto.
Passages like these give this reader a great deal to think about and to meditate upon for the days I kept the book, and like Otto, I came away from the book/trip a changed person. It would be remiss not to mention that the book also has a very good plot, often including humor, a touch of “romance,” and a very satisfying ending.
I assign Breakfast with Buddha a full five out of five points.