Son of Laughter: A Novel

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Rich in family drama, passion, and human affinity, critically acclaimed author Frederick Buechner's contemporary retelling of this captivating and timeless biblical saga revitalizes the ancient story of Jacob, delighted our senses and modern sensibilities and gracing us with his exceptional eloquence and wit.

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Editorial Reviews

Christian Century
“This is an extraordinary novel that demonstrates both the truth of fiction and Buechner’s superb ability to offer it.”
National Catholic Reporter
“A masterpiece.”
USA Today
“One of our most original storytellers.”
James Merrill
“The Bible’s account of Jacob is a pungent seed found in a tomb. Frederick Buechner has planted it and the result is this beautiful swaying tree of a book.”
Annie Dillard in the Boston Globe
“With profound intelligence, Buechner’s novel does what the finest, most appealing literature does: It displays and illumines the seemingly unrelated mysteries of human character and ultimate ideas.”
Publishers Weekly - Publisher's Weekly
In this reimagined life of the biblical patriarch Jacob, Buechner ( Brendan ) sticks close to the Bible story. Reminiscing during his last days in Goshen, Jacob recounts the familiar events. An ambitious and cunning youth, he gets his ravenous elder twin Esau to sell his birthright for a meal, and then connives to receive the blessing that their father, Isaac (whose name, readers are told means ``laughter,'' hence the title), would confer on his brother. He dreams of a stairway to heaven and wrestles with God, called ``the Fear'' throughout. Later chapters focus, like the biblical account, on Jacob's son Joseph. Buechner's embellishments deal mainly in his subject's inner psychology, and while his style is highly readable, the prose lacks resonance and in the end the novel proves no more evocative or informative than a well-developed Sunday-school lesson. The conceit of Jacob justifying his own life to the reader wears thin, and because the story is so familiar there are few surprises. Buechner's autobiographical works are more effective, but this volume is not likely to disappoint his many faithful readers. (Mar.)
Library Journal
Buechner is a minister as well as a noted author of historical fiction and devotional nonfiction. His knowledge of and interest in biblical history enriches this retelling of the story of Jacob, son of Isaac (the ``laughter'' of the title), and grandson of Abraham. The stories of Abraham's near-sacrifice of Isaac, the exchange of Esau's birthright for a bowl of porridge, the deception of Isaac when he is about to give his blessing, Jacob's courtships and marriages, his dream of angels climbing the ladder, his wrestling with God (here referred to as The Fear), the sale of Joseph into slavery in Egypt, and his gaining favor by interpreting dreams--all are beautifully presented. The novel is rich with sensory description. The characters and their relationships with one another are well developed, although more conservative readers may be surprised by Buechner's description of the way men assess each other's strength. Recommended for wide purchase, especially in public libraries.-- Ann Irvine, Montgomery Cty. P.L., Md.
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Product Details

  • ISBN-13: 9780062501172
  • Publisher: HarperCollins Publishers
  • Publication date: 8/28/1994
  • Edition description: Reprint
  • Pages: 288
  • Sales rank: 690,417
  • Product dimensions: 5.62 (w) x 9.25 (h) x 0.65 (d)

Meet the Author

Frederick Buechner, author of more than thirty works of fiction and nonfiction, is an ordained Presbyterian minister. He has been a finalist for both the Pulitzer Prize and the National Book Award and was honored by the American Academy of Arts and Letters. His most recent work is Beyond Words: Daily Readings in the ABC’s of Faith.

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Read an Excerpt

Chapter One

The Buried Gods

They All Had Names, but I have forgotten them. One name sounded like a man hocking up a bone. Another went lu lu like a man with a woman under him. Another rattled like the god of a tree. One name was so tiny and dry you hardly dared speak it for fear it would crumble to dust on your lips. They were no taller than from my wrist to the tip of my middle finger. They lived on a shelf in my uncle's cellar. My uncle was Laban. The cellar walls were of earth. It was always black down there even when the sun was high.

One of them was a bearded child in a high peaked cap. Another wore a skirt of fish scales with plump toes and a round, full belly. Another was bald and beardless. He held his member out before him in both hands. He had no eyes and only a crack in the stone for his mouth. They told my uncle many things that he lusted to know. They told him where to look for the missing goat or the strayed lamb. They told him when to plant and where in the city of Haran to buy for least and sell for most. They told him about rain. I have seen him come lurching up the ladder so drunk on their secrets that his eyes were rolling around in his head and his jaw hanging.

He kept a lamp burning down there for them at all hours. He fed them on barley cakes, honey cakes, radishes, beer. He rubbed them with oil -- their beards and bellies, their fat toes. He burned things for them. Every day he talked to them. You could hear him at it. He wheedled and bullied and teased the way he traded oxen. My uncle was an ox himself. His neck was as thick as his head was wide. He said itwould come in handy if they ever tried hanging him. His face was the color of brick. He always put his arm around your shoulder when he was talking to you or patted your cheek with his hand. "As long as we love each other, darling," he would say. "That's all that matters." His other hand was probably in your pocket.

After twenty years, we finally left him. I waited till he was off at a shearing so he wouldn't know. There were enough of us by then to stretch as far as the eye could see -- my wives and the children, the servants, beasts, baggage, tenting, everything we could carry with us. We also carried with us my uncle's gods with their large members and fish-scale skirts though I didn't know it at the time. It was of all people my timid-hearted wife, Rachel, his daughter, who thought of taking them. She dreaded what might happen to us on our long journey, and she was afraid of what my brother might do when the two of us came face to face again after so many years. She was afraid he might kill me. He had good cause.So the whole pack of them and had them stowed in a sack which she kept close by her both waking and sleeping.

We had been traveling some days when my uncle returned from his flocks to find us gone. He overtook us just as we were making camp among high, wooded hills. His face wasstreaming with tears.

How could I leave him without much as saying goodbye? How couldI cheat him of the chance to throw one last feast in my honor with music and dancing?

How could I rob him of his daughters and his grandchildren, the only comfort he had now that old age was upon him? He wailed and thumped his chest. His small eyes were pink with grief and fierce reproach.

Worst of all, he said, how could I steal his gods? I did not know yet that Rachel had stolen them.

I said if he could find them, he was welcome to them. I swore I would have whoever took them killed on the spot. So he rushed like a madman from tent to tent searching till he came to Rachel's tent. She had just time to sit down on the sack and spread her skirts over it before he entered. She asked his pardon for not rising to greet him, that gentle, courteous woman. It was her time for bleeding, she said. She meant him to believe it was the unclean blood a woman sheds by being a woman, and so he believed. The truth was otherwise. She bled indeed, but it was the stone gods she sat on in their sack that bloodied her with their pointed caps and sharp edges. Her flesh was white and soft as cheese where they wounded her. Her father leaned over and kissed her brow for the pain he saw in it, little guessing what it was that pained her. You could tell he was full of shame at having suspected her of thieving. Even the gods must have been moved by the tenderness of the scene.

It wasn't long afterward, when Laban had gone, that I got rid of them. It was for the Fear's sake I did it. The Fear came to me in the night and whispered words of hope into my ear. He told me that he loved me as he had loved Laughter, my father, before me and Abraham, my grandfather, before that. He repeated the ancient promises that never fail to frighten me with their beauty just as the Fear himself never fails to frighten me. So when the time was ripe, I did it. We were in Shechem, where two of my sons had brought terrible shame upon us.

The Son of Laughter. Copyright © by Frederick Buechner. Reprinted by permission of HarperCollins Publishers, Inc. All rights reserved. Available now wherever books are sold.
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Customer Reviews

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Sort by: Showing all of 3 Customer Reviews
  • Anonymous

    Posted April 29, 2003

    Laughter and Fear

    I had read the biblical accounts of Abraham, Isaac and Jacob several times, but when I read The Son of Laughter, I entered into their experiences for the first time. Abraham, Isaac and Jacob ceased to be flannel-graph characters to me. In this novel, Buechner transforms them into complex people with real fears, faults, doubts and faith. Also, my experience of God changed as I interacted with the story. Thanks to The Son of Laughter, God is no longer comfortable and non-threatening in my life. Now I know God as The Fear who consistently intervenes and interferes with the life He gave me.

    1 out of 2 people found this review helpful.

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  • Anonymous

    Posted April 2, 2004

    An engaging version of the Jacob story

    I would recommend this for anyone interested in sophisticated retellings of Bible stories. The writing is quite fine, and Buechner seems to have done his research about the ancient world.

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  • Anonymous

    Posted July 28, 2010

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