Mitch Albom has sold so many books that three out of the five people you meet in heaven carry copies under their wings.
That this sportswriter should become our national correspondent on the afterlife is perhaps the best proof we have that God works in mysterious ways. But America has always been thirsty for sugary elixirs of spirituality diluted in platitudes. We are truly people touched by an angel — or at least by its dust.
For Albom, the switch from nonfiction to celestial storytelling began in 2003, when he published “The Five People You Meet in Heaven.” It tells the tale of Eddie, an elderly maintenance man who dies trying to save a little girl at an amusement park. Eddie awakens in a colorful realm and discovers that each person who arrives is met by five people, each of whom was once met by five other people, ad infinitum, like a divine pyramid scheme: God’s Amway.
If you haven’t yet shuffled off this mortal coil yourself, you may remember that the last time we saw Eddie, he had learned his various lessons — like Scrooge on Christmas morning — and was reunited with his dearly departed wife. But what of that little girl whom Eddie pushed from the path of a car on Freddy’s Free Fall ride? Was she saved? Was Eddie’s sacrifice in vain?
My faithful friends, your prayers have been answered. Like Milton returning to “Paradise Lost,” Albom has now produced a sequel: “The Next Person You Meet in Heaven.” Fifteen years may have passed, but as he writes, “A few seconds on earth could be a century in heaven,” a feeling re-created by reading this short book.
As the story opens, we learn that the little girl, Annie, is now a 30-year-old nurse, and today is her wedding day. But don’t bother sending a gift. Albom tells us that “love comes when you least expect it,” but here death comes when you most expect it. Throughout these early pages, the clock is ticking — “With fourteen hours left to live. . .Thirteen hours left to live.” And there’s dead Eddie shimmering away among the guests, a necrotic wedding crasher. By the time the happy newlyweds climb into a hot-air balloon to celebrate their nuptials on a blustery day, we can already see the Hindenburg in flames.
Oh, the inanity!
“The Next Person” follows the formula of its predecessor — melodramatic flashbacks, greeting-card homilies — but heaven has been spruced up since we were here last. Annie zooms around these kaleidoscopic clouds by car, by train, by mattress on some kind of spiritual acid trip, while parts of her body fade in and out. Albom notes that “nobody can talk when they first arrive,” which probably helps cut down on the screaming as new souls realize they’ll spend eternity in this massive glob of cotton candy.
“The Next Person” is so packed with sweet aphorisms that it’s like scrolling through the Instagram account of a New Age masseuse. One minute, we’re told, “Forcing love is like picking a flower then insisting that it grow.” The next, “Just because you see things straight doesn’t mean you see them in time.” And unfortunately, Albom’s big theme hasn’t changed or become any more compelling since the previous novel. “When you first get to heaven, you meet five people from your time on earth,” Annie’s first guide explains. “They teach you something you didn’t realize while you were alive. It helps you understand the things you went through.”
One of the five people who help Annie understand the secrets of the universe is her old dog. I’m hoping that doesn’t happen to me because my old dog used to eat other dogs’ poo. But, anyhow, the question of whether her dog, Cleo, was originally met by five other dead dogs will have to wait for another sequel. (And what, one wonders, would those five dogs teach the new dog in heaven? “The stick you fetch is fetching you.”) Meanwhile, when she sees her beloved pet again, “a sudden warmth oozed through Annie’s fingers,” which indicates, I suppose, how happy Annie feels, but it sounds like Cleo still isn’t housebroken.
What’s surprising about “The Next Person You Meet in Heaven” is how unmoving it remains, even during moments of horrible suffering. Cruel fathers, dead babies, severed limbs — these tragedies don’t catch at our heartstrings because, despite approaching the mysteries of life, death and salvation, the story always retreats into sentimentality, which can’t satisfy our most profound questions.
Here — or beyond — readers should say, “Next.”
Ron Charles writes about books for The Washington Post and hosts TotallyHipVideoBookReview.com.
By Mitch Albom
Harper. 224 pp. $23.99