The review the Freep wouldn’t print

Oct 8, 2003 at 12:00 am

How many ways can you define “superficial?” Mitch Albom’s new book suggests quite a variety.

The Five People You Meet in Heaven attests to Albom’s imagination and verbal dexterity, but his widescreen sentimental streak skewers his credibility. His imagination and linguistic facility carry a very short day in the follow-up to Tuesdays With Morrie, the self-aggrandizing 1997 best seller Albom wrote about his former teacher, Brandeis University sociology professor Morrie Schwartz.

Readability is not an issue here. The issue is depth.

This is the story of Eddie, a schlub who fixes rides at an old-fashioned seaside amusement park that evokes Coney Island. Eddie is way past his prime; war wounds, loneliness and lack of pride hamper him. But “Eddie Maintenance” is proud of his work and, when he allows himself to consider more than its mechanics, he realizes it’s ultimately about taking care of the kids who go on the rides.

On his 83rd birthday, Eddie puts himself in harm’s way when he tries to save a little girl from being crushed by a cart falling off its track. Eddie doesn’t know what hits him. He also doesn’t know that in his final moments, he becomes enough of a hero to justify Albom’s thin, mawkish story.

This is a book you can read in two hours. Albom conveniently makes it pocketsize, appropriate for a story so downsized. Albom can write vividly, however. Or, at least, cinematically:

“In those final moments, Eddie seemed to hear the whole world: distant screaming, waves, music, a rush of wind, a low, loud, ugly sound that he realized was his own voice blasting through his chest. The little girl raised her arms. Eddie lunged. His bad leg buckled. He half flew, half stumbled toward her, landing on the metal platform, which ripped through his shirt and split open his skin … He felt two hands in his own, two small hands.

“A stunning impact.

“A blinding flash of light.

“And then nothing.”

Well, not quite. After a brief flashback to Eddie’s birth — Albom’s peeks at the past are among the more winning aspects of this book — Eddie finds himself in a bizarre, sugary heaven. It seems to be a nice place. God knows he feels better there than he did on Earth, what with no more aches and pains.

From then on, this fable about What Binds Us All Together In Harmonious Afterlife takes place on the extraterrestrial plane, a field of dreams and revelations in which Eddie finds himself no more freakish, or lonely, than the other heavenly residents. He also finds peace with himself and, in Albom’s manipulative hands, brings facile closure for readers.

Where some attempt to write the Great American Novel, Albom seems content to write the Great American Postcard. Every so often, however, he suggests where he might have taken his story had he worked to raise it above greeting-card level.

He could have deepened his characters, given them flesh and blood instead of limiting them to symbols. He could have dug history more deeply to paint a painstaking, fascinating picture of the evolution of amusement parks (his occasional reference to the parks’ evolution suggests he’s done his homework). He could have explored the philosophical ramifications of some of his imagery, which can be evocative. This picture of Eddie, who is surprised to find himself feeling good, even frisky, in heaven, is not only gorgeous, it’s thought-provoking:

“He ran down the heart of the old midway, where the weight guessers, fortune-tellers, and dancing gypsies had once worked. He lowered his chin and held his arms out like a glider, and every few steps he would jump, the way children do, hoping running will turn to flying. It might have seemed ridiculous to anyone watching, this white-haired maintenance worker, all alone, making like an airplane. But the running boy is inside every man, no matter how old he gets.”

For every tantalizing running boy image, however, there’s a treacly assertion that doesn’t quite work.

After Eddie becomes acclimated to heaven, he meets the Five People Who Really Mattered. They are the Blue Man, an early, inadvertent victim of Eddie’s; the Captain, who taught Eddie about war; Ruby, the patroness of the amusement park; Eddie’s wife, Marguerite, who died young (the couple never had a child, which may help explain why Eddie takes care of kids at an amusement park); and Tala, the little girl who finally brings peace to Eddie.

The connections between these five form the core of a story meant to uplift and comfort. The Five People You Meet in Heaven, it seems, is designed to make you feel good. After all, at the end, Eddie transcends his ordinariness and, with the help of these talismanic figures, discovers he’s not a bad guy, after all.

Doesn’t everybody want that? Don’t we all hope people see us as kind, connected and caring? The touchy-feely story Albom tells, in a narrative sticky with clichés, aims to be a tonic for these nasty, nasty times. All we have to do, Albom suggests, is find Ruby’s Pier, where Eddie works. Once we find Eddie, he might let us in on the meaning of life.

Free press for Mitch
Forget integrity; never hurt the big star’s feelings.

Carlo Wolff is a freelance writer from Cleveland. E-mail [email protected].