Book Review: Breakfast with Buddha

by terry mathews - news-telegram arts editor

Breakfast with Buddha

By Roland Merullo
Algonquin Books of Chapel Hill.
Trade paperback. $13.95. 323 pp.

August 1, 2008 - I'm not having much luck in finding a great new voice in the world of literature.

When Algonquin sent out their fall-winter catalog, I found 10 titles that looked promising.

"Breakfast with Buddha," originally released in 2007 in hardback, wasn't one of them, but when Elisabeth Scharlatt, Algonquin's publisher, mentioned the book's much-anticipated release in trade paperback, I asked that it be added to my list.

I should have left well enough alone.

It's not that author Roland Merullo lacks talent. His writing style is clear and concise, without a lot of hearts and flowers. It reads well.

It's not that the story lacks merit. Otto Ringling, a Regular Joe is conned by his hippy sister into taking a road trip from New York City to Stark County, N.D., with Volya Rinpoche, a most holy man.

The biggest disappointment in the book is that, after 323 pages, nothing really happens and the story is predictable to the point of putting the reader to sleep.

Ringling's satisfied with his life, if not 100 percent perfectly content. He's a food book editor, happily married and the father of two teen-agers.

He has to head out west to settle his parents' estate after they are killed in an automobile accident. He's handling the matter because his fortune-telling, past-life regressing, spiritual journeying sister is (1) afraid to fly and (2) can't be trusted with such worldly matters. He thinks his sister is going to make the trip with him. She has other ideas. She's decided to give her part of the Ringling family farm to Rinpoche so he can establish a retreat in middle America.

The book's jacket says, "Otto is given a remarkable opportunity to see his world - and more important, his life - through someone else's eyes."

Rinpoche is obviously supposed to facilitate Otto's "enlightening," but frankly, his part of the story completely missed the mark. I'm not sure what the author hoped to accomplish with his portrait of Buddha's reincarnation, but he didn't seem particular wise, nor very engaged in Ringling's spiritual journey. He spent most of the road trip in silence. The pair's nightly quest of a good place to sleep and Ringling's obsession with a good meal wore thin in a hurry. The book's only real spark came when Rinpoche encounters a bitter college professor at the miniature golf course, and even that grew stale after only a few pages.

Maybe I'll have better luck with the next Algonquin offering, "Heart in the Right Place." I'm only 20 pages in, and I've already laughed out loud a dozen times.

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