Click here to read the story in its entirety on The New Yorker webpage. J. Robert Lennon’s “Breadman” was originally published in the January 19, 2015 issue of The New Yorker.
I recommend “Breadman,” by J. Robert Lennon. It’s funny and serious at the same time, and it provides the reader the pleasure of a series of unveilings: the storyteller’s character (and general blindness), the Breadman’s unconventional business, the author’s own attitude toward both, a few wonderful one-liners, and a use of religious imagery I found a very nice sleight of hand.
Actually, I don’t just recommend this story. I would like to say I loved it — it’s a little trip, and it also fits into the new year very nicely. I had the sense of opportunity from it, as if the story itself were about opportunity, about new beginnings, and also about being tested, the way we are tested, out of the blue, suddenly, in the most unlikely of places.
A married, middle-aged curmudgeon is doing his wife a favor: he’s picking up the bread that she loves at a place he wouldn’t have gone in “a million, billion years.” He’s the kind of guy who is “majestically enthroned at the center of [his world].” His wife describes him as having a “smug mode” when he is in control of things, and he’s even smug about his wife’s wisecrack: he takes the idea of himself being “enthroned” as a compliment.
What I admire most about this story (and I admire a great many things) is its pace. It is the story of about a half hour in a man’s life, but it’s also the story of his life, his marriage, his character, and his failings, all delivered in small, perfect, ironic, deft strokes. This story is wicked good. I enjoyed each devilish trick the author used to slow the story down, to deepen it, to make me laugh, to play with me, to make me think.
Here’s the thing: I have no idea whether Lennon is religious or not, whether he is using the Christian imagery as anything but a device, but I know this story is a religious speculation, a religious inquiry.
It has to do with this question: What is the bread of life? Or what Paul Tillich would call “one’s ultimate concern.” What is it that makes you happy? Or loving? Or useful?
What is it that makes you reject the opportunity to be so when it is offered to you point blank?
I am a reader who has a need for ecstasy and who is in a fairly constant failed quest for the sublime, and I am also inclined to accept “Love thy neighbor as thyself” as the ultimate competition that I am barely qualified to enter, and so the Christian imagery and allusions in this story don’t bother me. But here’s the question: Does this story work with the reader who is so disgusted with religion and all its stupidities that any mention of it makes the hair stand up on the back of the neck?
For me, the story lacks a dogmatic stance. It works for me as a query. What is the nature of happiness? But, for people who find religion disgusting, I wonder if the story can still work. I suggest that the story allows for just that disgust by being so funny and being mysterious and being oh so true, in a Garrison Keillor kind of way. But that comparison is a little casual. Lennon is an original, I think.
Lennon’s story reminds me of a storefront in the next town over, Hazel’s Place, where you can go if you need something free. Hazel is much older than the Spokefather of this story, and she seems to know a great many of the people who come and go. I went there last summer, several weeks in row, when I was having a fit of cleaning things out. Hazel sits in an armchair at the front of the store, at its mouth, where things stream in and out — toys, clothes, dishware, electronics, you name it. On one of those days, the air outside was warm and breezy, the sky was blue, and I was a little baffled. There was Hazel, smiling, a little pre-occupied, sitting inside in the darkish space with all the oldish things, contented.
I like the way Lennon’s story reminds me of her, and the way I hustled myself in and out, all business.
Anyway, I think “Breadman” is a tour de force: funny, entertaining, and, in its own way, deep.
Here we are, this week, dealing with the consequences of religion run amok. Some people, in the name of faith, have murdered a lot of other people, not just in Paris but also in Nigeria. It’s an old story, isn’t it? Amid the shards of failed religions, here’s a story that dares to use religious imagery to ask what the heck it is that saves us.
So the story works for me in general and works for me in this terrible week. But I wonder what other people think.