November 9, 2006
Books: The middle-American way of death
At the beginning of "For One More Day," Mitch Albom's latest sermon on life, death and the realms beyond, fallen baseball star Charles "Chick" Benetto attempts suicide. One white light later, he finds himself reunited and running errands with his dead mother, Posey. Think of it as The One Person You Meet in Limbo. Out two weeks and already atop the bestseller list, the novel is also conveniently available at Starbucks, along with a bookmark-sized reading guide, as if Albom needed a PR boost to secure his spot as America's foremost lay leader. The tragedy isn't that Albom's a sappy novelist, it's that his message is so insistently universal as to be nearly meaningless.
I first encountered Albom the way many readers outside of Detroit did -- not through his sports columns, but through his 1997 bestseller, "Tuesdays With Morrie," a memoir of his life-changing reunion with Morrie Schwartz, a Brandeis professor dying of ALS. I saw the movie, Oprah Winfrey's 1999 ABC adaptation, first; I even got misty-eyed when Hank Azaria's Mitch, collapsing in a puddle of tears, admitted to Jack Lemmon's Morrie, "I don't want you to die." But that wasn't embarrassing enough. I went out and bought the book, and encouraged my parents to read it, too.
That was before Albom wrote another bestseller, "The Five People You Meet in Heaven," about a humble carnival maintenance worker who leaves this mortal coil for the psycho-spiritual coaching of the afterlife. The very title warned of treacly, middle-American, middlebrow morality, and, while purportedly a novel, it was sized and shaped to resemble "Tuesdays With Morrie."
The differences cut deeper than genre distinctions. Looking back, it's not hard to see what I liked about "Tuesdays With Morrie": Albom's warm portrait of Morrie himself. Raised on the Lower East Side by a Russian émigré turned furrier, sneaking off to synagogue to pray for his mother, teaching Martin Buber and Erik Erikson, holding a "living funeral" after learning of his disease, Morrie was a figure both familiar and unexpected, a model grandfather, funny, wise, hokey and infinitely huggable.
"The Five People You Meet in Heaven" has no such anchor, only an inert cipher divorced from any distinct religion or culture, carelessly sapped of a soul. Albom dedicates the novel to his uncle Edward Beitchman, "who gave me my first concept of heaven," and sure enough, the novel's amiable Everyman is named Eddie. We check in just as he checks out -- killed, trying to save a little girl from a fluke carnival ride accident -- but, fear not, Albom can't write 10 pages without a flashback. In one, a 17-year-old Eddie sits in his Pitkin Avenue apartment with two recently arrived Romanian cousins who've fled war-torn Europe -- shorthand, it seems, for Holocaust refugees. But then Eddie's brother Joe announces that Eddie's met a girl. "Does she go to church?" someone asks. Turns out Eddie's family isn't Jewish, no matter what those Romanian refugees are doing this side of the Atlantic.
For all of his apparent investment in the spiritual enlightenment of his characters and readers, Albom himself is remarkably evasive when it comes to religion. When a reporter for the Boston Globe questioned Albom about making Eddie Catholic, and creating a "goyish" heaven, Albom told him, "You are reading way too much into it," and "It's really a fable. I didn't write this to have religious overtones." Which makes all that talk about God and the afterlife what -- filler? Just because Albom's Jewish, of course, doesn't require him to write Jewish characters, or a Jewish heaven, but he could at least try to pick one back story and stick to it.
Religion gets even shoddier treatment in "For One More Day," despite Albom's efforts to nail it down. Early on Chick tells us, "My mother was French Protestant, and my father was Italian Catholic, and their union was an excess of God, guilt and sauce," and proceeds to recall lots of sitcom-style disagreements about baptisms, wearing baseball cleats in "God's House," and whether that painting of Jesus belongs outside the bathroom. But even that veneer begins to wear. At Chick's mother's funeral, a minister hands him a shovel. "I was to toss dirt onto my mother's coffin," Chick recalls, explaining she "had witnessed this custom at Jewish funerals and had requested it for her own." The reasoning is mildly ludicrous, and conspicuously defensive. "I could hear my father chiding her, saying, ' Posey, I swear, you make it up as you go along.'" Of course, it's not Posey who invents as she goes -- it's Albom.
The time has come to really jerk our tears, and he just can't help but fall back on the rituals of his own culture -- why doesn't Chick just say Kaddish already?
Why Albom insists on making his characters Christians, when he seems to have no better grounding in Christianity than a casual follower of "Seventh Heaven," is up for debate, but the cynic in me suspects it's mostly a matter of marketing -- a perception that vaguely Christian characters will have a more universal appeal than vaguely Jewish ones. How else can you even explain an absurd name like Chick Benetto?
It's tempting to call Albom's characters Conversos, but that suggests Albom thinks the distinctions between Judaism and Christianity actually matter. Really, what are Albom's characters if not Judeo-Christian mythical creatures of the American melting pot, linked by a loosely defined set of values? It's a tradition lambasted as a lie by Harold Bloom and fully adopted by Kinky Friedman, a sure sign of its marketing potential.
The lessons of "For One More Day" aren't, after all, so controversial: nothing can ever replace a mother's love, there's always time to make amends, family matters more than fame. If you've read "Tuesdays With Morrie," or ever watched a movie on Lifetime, you've probably heard this all before. But without a moral center like Morrie, those teachings come off as pandering, saccharine self-help, a low pitch to the middle-American, working-class readers with whom Albom aims to sympathize.
What's saddest about Albom's novels is they might be half-decent if he would just quit running away and embrace his obvious calling as a Jewish writer. It wouldn't make his lessons more surprising, his prose less plodding, or his premises less juvenile -- give some comatose tennis player an afternoon with his great aunt, for all I care -- but at least the messengers wouldn't be so muddled.