- The Washington Times - Saturday, September 6, 2003

ZERMATT

By Frank Schaeffer

Carroll & Graf, $25, 248 pages.

REVIEWED BY JON WARD

It is clear from the second page of Frank Schaeffer’s novel “Zermatt” that the Becker family, the protagonist unit from Mr. Schaeffer’s two other novels, is near collapse. Rachel, the 16-year-old middle child, says the family should proselytize to others at a ski resort in Switzerland.

“We’re supposed to be missionaries,” she says, prompting a quick reply from her father Ralph.

“We’re on vacation,” he growls.

Mr. Becker is badly in need of a vacation from his problems, the biggest of which is that he’s married to a religious fanatic.The book is a tale about the couple’s son, Calvin, a boy whose sexual awakening brings the simmering tension between his parents to a climax. The result is not pretty, but it is very funny.

Mr. Becker is constantly reminded of his blue-collar roots by his wife, Ulsa, who is descended from artistocratic missionary blood. It is through her family’s connections that the fundamentalist Presbyterian Beckers are stationed in Switzerland, instead of in India, “looking for toilet paper,” as Mr. Becker puts it. The Beckers go to Zermatt each year for a ski vacation.

Yet Mr. Becker has come to resent his wife’s thinly veiled manipulation of the family through her endless religious jingos and textbook answers to every problem.

“See, Elsa likes to pretend that everything is so great, so special! But there’s a real world out there and I get sick of all her pretending,” he tells his three children early in the book. As the story progresses, Mr. Becker’s stewing resentment explodes into a full-throttled rage, leading to a crisis point for the family.

It is Calvin’s sexual escapades with a hotel maid at the resort that precipitate this. Calvin has never been allowed to dance, and he yearns for a taste of “worldly pleasures” despite, or perhaps because of, all his mother’s indoctrination — she hides his sister’s bras on the laundry line between hanging sheets and tells him not to even think of sex until after he is married.

When Eva, a Swiss woman in her mid- to late-thirties, enters Calvin’s bedroom one morning with breakfast and a kiss on the lips, the young boy can think of nothing else. Each subsequent morning, the pair’s trysts progress, until one morning Calvin’s parents hear the noise the two are making and barge in just after Eva has left. They find her underwear on the floor.

Somehow, the Beckers think that Calvin has stolen Eva’s undergarments and is playing all by himself. “Dad was looking at me in a tired sort of way. Mom was all aquiver and seemed to be vibrating,” Calvin says. He drives his mother into a sorrowful frenzy with a fake confession that shields Eva from detection, but when he is left alone with his father, he is shocked by what he hears.

“All boys do it. And it’s none of your mother’s damn business! From now on just do what you have to do in the bathroom like everybody else … I’m sick of all this nonsense!” Mr. Becker says.

As disorienting as this exchange is for Calvin, it is even more of a jolt to Mr. Becker. He suddenly realizes the spell that he has been under, play-acting the role prescribed for him by his wife. He begins to question everything, to cross boundaries thought uncrossable by him and his family.

He tells Calvin that he may fight back against his 18-year-old sister, Janet, a sadist who enjoys giving Calvin “Indian burns” on his ams. He curses at the supper table and refuses to play along with his wife’s games. Most confusing to his children is that he is oddly calm for the most part. “I’ve had it up to here with all of you women,” he says. “And leave Calvin alone. And leave me alone!”

In the resort’s dining room, each family meal marks another step in Mr. Becker’s meltdown. After Mrs. Becker has, in character, told her daughters everything about Calvin’s escapades, Mr. Becker castigates his wife and two daughters for their morbidity.

“God made sex, girls. It’s all in the Bible. He gave Calvin the same equipment he gave Kind David,” Mr. Becker says.

As Mrs. Becker holds up a Bible between her and her husband “as if she were warding off a dog with a stick,” Mr. Becker tells her, “Something finally snapped, Elsa. You’ve ruined my life, but you sure as hell are not going to turn Calvin into a simpering fool! You’ve got the girls! Calvin is mine!”

Mrs. Becker leaves Zermatt immediately, taking Rachel with her and leaving Janet and Calvin behind with their father. This sets up a climactic power struggle between the two spouses, which is eerily reminiscent of the ending to the movie “A Dead Poet’s Society,” though in that story the struggle is between father and son.

Mrs. Becker is just as nasty as her husband. In fact, when it comes to pure evil, she takes the cake. But she’s able to disguise it in pious behavior and polite speech. She’s the infuriating woman who thinks she knows better than anyone else how to live life, and tries to make everyone else follow her lead. She’s so dead set against anyone doing anything “wrong”— which is really just code for her preferences — that she provokes the overwhelming, raging desire to do nothing “right.”

At its core, Zermatt is a frightening illustration of what happens when parents try to control their children or force religion on them. Mr. Schaeffer’s book portrays how Christianity, a faith system that is supposed to embody love, justice and forgiveness empowered by God’s strength, can be made more unattractive than hell when it is treated as a recipe or formula to be lived out on one’s own power.

But it is also a hilarious look inside a strict religious family from an author who grew up in such a family. Mr. Schaeffer is the son of the well known Christian evangelist and author Francis Schaeffer, who died in 1984.

Calvin Becker is a lot like Calvin from the comic strip “Calvin and Hobbes.” His inquisitive, relentless and mischievous questioning of his family’s dogma and its practical implications provide highly entertaining dialogue. When Calvin is caught looking at his sister’s bras on the laundry line, he responds to Mrs. Becker’s interrogation with theological gymnastics. Since God knows everything before it happens, he argues, “it must have been the Lord’s will for me to look at Janet’s bra, Mom,” he says.

“Calvin! This sounds to me like you’re being dreadfully levitous about the Things Of The Lord!” Mrs. Becker says.

“No, I’m not. I just wanted to ask about predestination and bras,” Calvin responds.

Religious readers — and the more traditional the better — should not shy away from this book. It is a helpful tale of how not to deal with others who don’t think the same, offspring or not. Nonreligious readers will benefit from understanding the insecurities and alienation that sometimes lurk within those who grew up in hyper-religious families.

“Zermatt” is not a knock against Christianity, but rather against those who seek to hijack it for their own personal agenda. It is a profound and sometimes painful look at the challenges of practicing faith, and a lot of fun to read.

Jon Ward is a reporter on the metro desk of The Washington Times.jward@washingtontimes.com

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