It’s hard to know what to do with a book like “The First Phone Call From Heaven.” If it had been written by a stranger and submitted to a publishing house, it seems to me fairly probable that it wouldn’t have been published. But it’s written by Mitch Albom, author of “Tuesdays With Morrie,” and he’s already sold around 34 million copies of his books. So, of course, this new one has to be published. Also, Albom appears to be an extremely good person. His publisher notes that he has “founded seven charities, including the first-ever full-time medical clinic for homeless children in America. He also operates an orphanage in Port-au-Prince, Haiti.” His life is filled with good deeds.
But will that produce a good book? Although the premise is interesting, “The First Phone Call From Heaven” is, I hate to say it, badly written.
Before you even get to the writing, though, you have to consider the marketing here. The book is bound in a deliberately small size, the size of a prayer book or hymnal. The pages have deckled edges . The story is set from September to Christmas. The whole Hallmarkish package screams stocking stuffer. I’m sure thousands of copies of this inspirational book will be opened under the tree this year by Aunt Mildred or Uncle Bob. It’s the perfect present, after all, for anyone vaguely Christian. It’s utterly without controversy, as pure in heart as motherhood and highway safety.
Except that, at some point, when Mildred and Bob get down to reading it, they’ll find themselves confused. Which character is which? Why should we care? Why does the language seem so strange? Why do Mildred’s and Bob’s eyes keep closing?
The action of “The First Phone Call From Heaven” takes place in the little town of Coldwater, Mich., where five clergymen run five different churches. There’s a library, a real estate office and a resort-fishing industry that goes on in the summer, but, of course, the book begins in September, after that seasonal action has died down. All is quiet. A nice woman, Tess Rafferty, is trying to unwrap a tea bag when the phone rings. It’s her mother, who leaves a message on the answering machine: “It’s Mom. . . . I need to tell you something.” Which is fine, except her mother has been dead for four years.
This same thing happens to other people around town. Katherine Yellin, a member of the Harvest of Hope congregation, announces at a service that she’s received a phone call from her dead sister; another man, Elias Rowe, an “African American . . . who owned a construction business,” says he got a phone call, too. Others chime in during the days that follow to say that they’ve heard from their beloved departed.
As counterpoint to this, an embittered man is released from a 10-month prison term. Sully Harding was in (and possibly caused) an airplane accident. While rushing to see what happened to him in the crash, his wife had a car crash of her own, fell into a coma and died soon after. Sully — unfairly imprisoned, bereft, with a 6-year-old boy to take care of — is now a furious atheist, brokenhearted, totally alienated from God and man. When he realizes that his son is yearning for a phone so that his mom might call, Sully tries to expose the fact that these messages from Heaven can’t be real.
And that actually poses an interesting conundrum for the author: Are these phone calls — which go on till Christmas and cause no end of fuss — a hoax, or are they miracles? Does this element of spiritual fantasy inspire us or merely remind us that our dearly departed don’t have a Verizon data plan?
And what to do with this multitude of literary sins: too many interchangeable characters, weird plot devices, dangling modifiers, the passive voice used for half-pages at a time, the verb “mumble” used over and over again.
The author credits God for every word he writes. Which isn’t fair to God.
See regularly reviews books for The Washington Post.
THE FIRST PHONE CALL FROM HEAVEN
By Mitch Albom
Harper. 326 pp. $24.99