CAN'T WAIT TO GET TO HEAVEN
By Fannie Flagg
Random House. 365 pp. $25.95
After seeing "Fried Green Tomatoes," the movie version of Fannie Flagg's 1987 bestseller, with its only slightly submerged lesbian theme and a murdered man who becomes barbecue, my elderly aunt commented wistfully, "Well, it really wasn't like 'Driving Miss Daisy,' was it?"
Flagg's new novel, Can't Wait to Get to Heaven , isn't "Miss Daisy" either, of course, but it shows the same perfect pitch in describing Southern mores. It is a thoroughly genial take on a staple of Southern fiction: death in a small town.
When Elner Shimfissle, an elderly resident of Elmwood Springs, Mo., who lives with an orange cat named Sonny, ascends her ladder to pick figs, she accidentally pokes a wasps' nest. Badly stung and awaiting the ambulance, Elner foggily worries that her protective niece, Norma, will use the accident as a pretext for depriving her of ladder privileges. Always on the verge of hysteria, Norma has had a bag marked "Hospital Emergency, Aunt Elner" for a decade.
But it's worse: The fretful Elner is dead.
Those of us who hail from small towns in the South will instantly recognize the characters and their response to the inevitable. (Though Missouri is arguably more Midwestern than Southern, Flagg is from Alabama.) Southern readers also will be intimately acquainted with Elmwood Springs's characteristic form of grief therapy: carbs. Can't Wait to Get to Heaven -- the title comes from a gospel song Elner has requested in advance -- supplies recipes for several of those gooey comfort foods that neighbors bring practically before the body is cold. "Nothing too spicy," Flagg writes. "When you are upset, you need bland and simple cream-based food." Among the reassuring dishes: pimiento cheese deviled eggs, green bean funeral casserole and that sweet without which nobody can go into the ground: a great big caramel cake. (Neighbor Dorothy's Heavenly Caramel Cake looks heavenly indeed.) Curiously absent is tomato aspic; where I come from, you almost can't get a death certificate without aspic.
As in real life, all the characters in this book have a surprising, hidden side. Elner is no exception. For starters, her exact age is unknown, even to herself. Her sister Ida long ago stole and buried the family Bible to conceal her own age. Elner was the less pretentious sister who came to the aid of numerous of her fellow citizens, among them chunky, tattooed Luther Griggs, who drives an 18-wheeler. Elner took Luther, a mistreated child, under her wing, but only after she got even with him, in a manner that still troubles her, for his throwing rocks at Sonny. One of Elner's great charms is that she is a curious old lady. "Norma, I think there is a mistake in the Bible, who do I tell, [radio hosts] Bud and Jay or Reverend Jenkins?" she asks.
Thanks to a gossipy (but fundamentally decent) nurse at the hospital, word of Elner's demise spreads rapidly. The news is even announced on the "Bud and Jay Show." While waiting for Elner's body to arrive, Neva, who owns the Rest Assured Funeral Home, reflects fondly that she has a soft spot for Elner's family. "The entire family had been loyal to them throughout the years," Flagg writes, "and Neva always took special care with their decedents, treated them as she would one of her own." Neva muses a bit less fondly on the problematical funeral of Verbena Wheeler's Aunt Dottie Ditty, who weighed 328 pounds and thus "represented a challenge right from the get-go."
Flagg is also dead right, so to speak, on small-town obituaries, which tend to flatter both the deceased and their survivors. Cathy Calvert, editor of the weekly in Elmwood Springs, devotes special effort to the writing of an obituary, knowing as she does that it is "one of the few times most law-abiding citizens got to see their names in the newspaper."
While Elner's friends and relatives are scurrying around to prepare for her funeral, Elner has already gotten to heaven. That she's just visiting seems to be quite clear, and so I'm not spoiling the end by telling you so. Sadly, the post-mortem portions of the book aren't as heavenly as the earthly ones. When Elner meets her Maker, He appears to her in the form of Neighbor Dorothy's pipe-smoking husband, Raymond. Asked by Elner to name His favorites among the human kind, He replies, "Hard to say, they are all special . . . teachers . . . visiting nurses . . . firemen -- excuse me, firepersons now -- but I was particularly fond of the U.S. women's soccer team, weren't they something?" You expect Him to say any minute that life is like a box of chocolates. But I did enjoy her brief reunion with Ida, who still insists she was only 59 when she died. Anyone "who would still lie about her age even after she's dead is pretty vain, if you ask me," Elner muses.
What saves this book from being more sugary than Neighbor Dorothy's Heavenly Caramel Cake is Flagg's unerring eye for human foibles. Here's Bud of the "Bud and Jay Show" reflecting on the show's erroneous report of Elner's demise: "Now he knew just how CNN and FOX News felt when they jumped the gun on a story." And a neighbor shrieks, "What do you mean, she's not dead? I was just fixing to throw out her milk."
Not surprisingly, Elner returns from the afterlife even more determined than before to live each day to the hilt. She also brings back an eminently useful bit of knowledge: "When you are dead, people go through all your things, so if you have anything you don't want found, you better get rid of it before you go!" That's a lesson we might all do well to learn -- before it's too late. ·
Charlotte Hays is co-author of "Being Dead Is No Excuse: The Official Southern Ladies Guide to Hosting the Perfect Funeral."