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
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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