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A Life in the Moral Majority : STRENGTH FOR THE JOURNEY An Autobiography by Jerry Falwell (Simon & Schuster: $17.95; 446 pp.)

November 29, 1987|Jack Butler | Butler is the son of a Southern Baptist preacher, and the author of the novel "Jujitsu for Christ," in cloth with August House, and to be released in trade paper by Penguin in February of 1988. His next novel, "Nightshade," will be released by Atlantic Monthly Press in the fall of 1988.

First of all, these blasted things are not autobiographies. As Jerry Falwell puts it, "And thanks too to Mel White who spent endless hours listening to my reels and reels of tape and making them into readable prose."

Please note that I am not saying that Jerry Falwell, Lee Iacocca, and the latest quarterback with a good agent don't have the right to produce as many of these artifacts as they can sell. (Maybe the implication is that the nominal authors are far too busy or too important to be bothered with the actual writing, but that we need their wisdom anyway.)

What I am saying is that if you haven't had the grit to select, organize, take your own risks, and appear for judgment in your own words, you haven't written an autobiography. No question there is a book there that you are in some sense responsible for, but it isn't an autobiography. What is it? We need a name for these hybrids, and since they are often described as having been told to someone with a tape recorder, I would like to suggest we call them astolds.

The distinction is relevant here: With an astold, the reader cannot form an impression of the integrity of the author according to the integrity of the author's style. There is no place to fix blame or credit.

In Falwell's book, I was irritated by the careless nature of the chronological structure. To take one example, he spends eight pages describing his adolescent days as a prankster/delinquent, a behavior that culminates with the felony-level theft of lunch tickets, and gets him and his athlete friends in some serious trouble. Suddenly, at the end of the passage, he drops in this paragraph:

"I looked awful that day. My fingers and face were bandaged. My nose was broken and swollen twice its normal size. Both eyes were black. My face was puffy and swollen from a near-fatal auto accident."

The accident is a revealing and critical event in young Falwell's life, as it turns out, but we hear no more for almost 300 pages, when it arises in another connection.

There are quite a few unintentionally funny lines in the book. Describing an orgy of confession and apology that took place in "a famous Kansas City restaurant whose name I have forgotten," when Falwell was leaving a church whose original members had not received him kindly, he says: "Tears were shed. Much cheesecake was consumed." My favorite occurs later in the book, and is drawn from a visit that Falwell made to San Francisco during the heyday of the Moral Majority uproar: "The tragedy of Sister Boom Boom's life was that no one had ever shared with him the redeeming Gospel of Jesus Christ. . . ."

Whom can we fault for such lapses? Falwell? His ghost writer? No one, really. These errors are endemic to the genre. All we can do is report our irritation or misplaced amusement, and proceed to evaluate the book on the basis of "content"--the attitudes, reports, and pronouncements of the person speaking into the tape recorder.

In spite of its structural and rhetorical flaws, the book does a pretty good job of evoking something I take to be Falwell's genuine voice. That voice is always either telling stories or sermonizing.

Some of the storytelling is not too bad, although there are a lot of unconnected and wasted anecdotes. The best material in the book comes early on, when he describes his forebears and his early family life. His father, Carey Falwell, was a highly successful and respected businessman in and around Lynchburg, Va., a man with a generous hand for his friends and for the needy, a powerful and just figure that a young son could look up to. He was also a bootlegger, a fierce-tempered hard-case who always had a pistol at hand, a distant and uncommunicative father, a man who would not tolerate talk of God or the church, and finally, a fratricide and an alcoholic.

It may have been that the elder Falwell had gotten his distrust of the church from his father, who had watched his young wife die of uterine cancer in 1914 in spite of his prayers, and had rejected belief in God ever since.

In any case, his story is a moving account of a strong and complex man in a rawer and maybe more basic America, a richly involved and intelligent man about whom the shadows gradually gather. It is, in short, a tragedy. Carey Falwell had a younger brother, Garland, who was apparently the prototypal wild child. Garland Falwell worked as a runner for the Prohibition whiskey his other brother was selling, and shared in the family wealth. But he drank, took Dexedrine to stay awake, and became more and more violent and lawless and paranoid. Carey rescued him from serious prosecution several times, but Garland became convinced that Carey was his enemy, and after a brush with the law one night, came to the family restaurant, guns drawn and firing away. His brother shot him through the heart.

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