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Thursday, June 17th, 2004


The Five People You Meet in Heaven

by Mitch Albom

For Heaven's Sake

A review by Sacha Zimmerman

Remember Tuesdays With Morrie, in which Mitch Albom has an utterly prosaic existential crisis and decides it's time to leave the rat race and appreciate the people in his life more after spending time with his dying and sagacious former college professor? Well, sportswriter-turned-pop-religionist Albom has one more cute little lesson for us unenlightened masses to gobble up and gag on. It's a bit of a misnomer this time: The Five People You Meet In Heaven is not really the five people you will meet in heaven (like your friends, Albert Einstein, Madonna, or John Holmes — is that just my idea of heaven?), but rather the five people destined for Albom's main character, an ornery old man straight out of central casting.

Eddie, the maintenance man at a Coney Island-like amusement park called Ruby Pier, has led a predominantly banal life. He did fight in the Philippines in World War II, where, after escaping a POW camp, he torched a hut that he comes to suspect may have had a child inside. (It did. Egad!) When he returns, he marries his high school sweetheart, gives up on all his hopes and dreams, and spends the rest of his life tending to the rides at Ruby Pier. He dies when one such ride breaks and is about to fall on a little girl; Eddie tries to save her and is unceremoniously crushed.

The skies open, the clouds change color, and suddenly Eddie is back at Ruby Pier — but magically it's the pier from his childhood and it's empty. Freaky. Throughout his time in heaven, Eddie fears he may not have rescued the child when he died — which is a bit odd, since his worries were supposedly lifted upon reaching the great ever after. Heaven also changes depending on who Eddie is talking to — said changes are of course always book-ended by skies opening and clouds changing color. Eddie meets a carnie from the freak show, talks to his old army captain, meets the real Ruby of Ruby Pier, and gets to spend time with his dead wife. Each provides Eddie with some tidbit of nauseating wisdom to help him understand his life. (Some of those dazzling Albom-isms: "All endings are also beginnings"; "The only time we waste is the time we spend thinking we are alone"; "The world is full of stories, but the stories are all one." Thank you, Lao Tse; I'll be sure to commit those to memory.)

So, dear reader, can you guess whether or not he saved the little girl? This book was about as suspenseful as an episode of "Full House." When all is finally revealed, Albom delivers his crescendo with the all the depth of one of Jerry Springer's Final Thoughts. It goes something like this: Though Eddie killed a little girl in a hut in the Philippines, he has actually been saving children his whole life by maintaining those crazy carnival rides. (Despite the fact that one broke down and almost killed a girl — but never mind.) Awww. And you know who delivers this news to him? Why, it's the fifth person he meets in heaven: the Filipina girl he killed (who speaks broken English, even though it's heaven: "Children. You keep them safe. You make good for me."). Yep, it's cool that he burned her alive and all, because he helped all those other kids. It's karma, Albom style.

But what Albom's novel (Fable? Didacticism? This must be a new genre.) is really about is his very own conception of heaven. As he puts it in the book's dedication, "Everyone has an idea of heaven, as do most religions, and they should all be respected." Where to begin? In fact, not everyone does have an idea of heaven. And not all versions should be respected — least of all one that comes from a man whose mid-life crisis has been foisted upon the country in the most saccharine book since The Bridges of Madison County. I, for one, don't respect the view of heaven that promises certain flight-school dropouts 100 virgins and an eternity of paradise. I don't respect the view of heaven that comes coupled with a nice hot hell for all the heathens, pagans, and heretics out there to rot in. And I don't respect the view of heaven that guarantees Mormons higher standing in the afterlife than the majority of the rest of us.

Truthfully, I don't believe in heaven — I have no clue as to what, if anything, comes next, whether it's Valhalla, Nirvana, the Garden of Eden, reincarnation, or absolutely nothing. My fundamental problem with the concept is that it acts as some kind of celestial incentive to be a good person on Earth. But there are plenty of Earthly and tangible reasons to do so already. If I tend to an elderly relative, it is because I care for that relative's well-being and quality of life, not because I desire a reward. And, frankly, that's a much more profound way to live in the world: behaving for the sake of doing what's right, not for the sake of gain.

What, prey tell, qualifies Albom to even enter the arena of religious thought — and please don't tell me it was all those instructive Tuesdays spent chatting with Morrie. But actually America loves Albom and his hokey ways; The Five People You Meet In Heaven has been on The New York Times' best-seller list for 36 weeks. It's easy to feel an affinity for this simplistic, folksy bathos; it's easier, after all, to act for the sake of heaven than to make the considered and nuanced moral choices that really confront us in life. And it is here that Albom fails. His character makes no moral choices, he does not ponder the depths of his existence, he is merely a reactive stick figure that has to go to cotton-candy heaven to learn that his life had meaning. It's single-serve religion for a drive-thru, strip-mall, mega-church kind of country.

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