Forbes foreign correspondent Richard C. Morais turned his first novel, The Hundred-Foot Journey, into a mystifying swirl of Ratatouille and Q&A (the novel that inspired Slumdog Millionaire), depicting the rise of an Indian-born boy through the world of French cooking. But it has neither Ratatouille’s unexpected brilliance nor Q&A’s heartstring-pulling and clever construction. It’s a slighter collection of three lengthy slice-of-life sections in which the protagonist grows from a boy mesmerized by food to a student of cooking, then becomes a celebrated chef. Morais’ second novel, Buddhaland Brooklyn, is unfortunately similar in its narrow focus, mining more mundanity for the simple pleasure of watching different cultures interact with little at stake.
Reverend Seido Oda is a senior Buddhist monk relating the significant life moments that led him to Brooklyn. As a child, he’s favored by his clinically depressed father, and he seems destined to enter the temple as a student. Just after Oda begins his training, his father commits suicide, and an accident claims the lives of his entire family. Oda retreats inside himself, and he has few friends as he progresses through his temple education and goes on to university to study painting. After a brief interlude with a young fellow art student, he rededicates himself to his art and Buddhism, attaining a teaching post at his home temple. When a new, materialistic leadership group rises to power in Oda’s sect, he’s sent to manage the construction of a new temple in Brooklyn to help preserve the job of his mentor and only friend.
As Oda navigates New York City, Morais employs a litany of fish-out-of-water tropes. He hates everything about New York and wishes for home right up until the moment he feels Buddha with him in the room while he prays, and after some predictable turnaround moments, everything progresses swimmingly. Oda lives in a tiny apartment with an Italian landlord, grows to admire and love his fiercely intelligent assistant, and juggles the competing authority of an elevator magnate and a socialite. He gets lost in translation, passed around by wealthy followers looking to use him as a social bargaining chip, and all the while, he’s out of his depth when consulting temple construction plans.
The novel merely presents the various American interpretations of Buddhism along with Oda’s displeasure, never really delving into any kind of religious critique or satirical angle on misplaced values and mistaken practices. Some of the people portrayed believe their faith is a practical way to receive benefits from a benevolent God. Others seek it out for purely academic reasons. The most compelling passages find Oda attempting to console and calm the mind of a mentally unstable follower. In a few scenes, Oda conveys his beliefs in a way that actually links modern American culture to the specifics of his Buddhist sect, but those moments are too few and far between.
Buddhaland Brooklyn was reportedly inspired by Federico Fellini’s Amarcord and a volume of haiku by the Buddhist poet Issa—fictional memoirs that progress thematically to correspond with the four seasons—but it lacks the breathtaking personal insight that soul-searching brought others, or even the graceful simplicity of Spring, Summer, Fall, Winter… And Spring. Morais’ presentation is admirable—he crafts flowery, easy-to-follow dreamlike passages as Oda gradually finds his place in the bustling metropolis—but it’s a toothless portrait of a religious man coming to terms with tragedy and making his own way in the world. He has a gift for simplicity and directness, but it comes at the cost of a distinct perspective and something important to say.