A bridge to nowhere

A bridge to nowhere

Showing an unexpected penchant for walking a dizzy line between Christian fiction and religious hocus-pocus, Mitch Albom, in his latest novel, returns to a subject which made his memoir Tuesdays with Morrie, a runaway success — Ruminations on mortality.

This, his fourth novel, The First Phone Call from Heaven, involves the quiet town of Coldwater, Michigan — Albom’s home state, and while there really is a Coldwater, Michigan, Albom is quick to caution that the town at the heart of his creation, is not it.

The book, which breaks the mold from Albom’s previous novels (for one, it is a hundred pages longer), tells the tale of seven of the town’s residents who start receiving mysterious phone calls from a departed and much bereaved loved one. While this setup smacks of conventional Christian fiction, the story is more a surprising who-done-it, even a ‘thriller’.

The turn is commendable. That Albom, once an award-winning sports columnist, could reinvent himself as a novelist is the sign of a rising star and afebrile mind. His crisp descriptions are outdone only by his attention to character-craft. Among his cadre of characters is Katherine Yellin, a real estate agent, who after receiving calls from her deceased sister, is the first to tell the world. Another resident, Doreen, gets calls from her son, a soldier killed in Afghanistan. A third character, Tess, speaks to her once estranged and long-deceased mother. The mold is familiar but Albom’s creations are clever. Believability in this setting would have been impossible without skepticism and feigned misdirection. 

Jack Sellers, the local chief of police, also receives calls from his son, but is unwilling to accept the possibility. Another man, Sullivan “Sully” Harding, who is possibly the most fleshed-out character in the book, has lost his faith, by way of a false prison conviction. An ex-Naval aviator, Sully’s demons are large. He is painted as a grotesque victim of fate, grieving over the death of his wife, Giselle. Following his release from prison, he returns to Coldwater to be with his young son when the calls begin. 

For Albom, the calls represent a symbol of normalcy, a bridge to another world, where the end is not the end. For Sully, they represent a horror. But even as Yellen and the others speak about their communion with the dead, and even as news reports of the incidents begin to attract international attention, Sully becomes convinced that the calls are a hoax, and sets out to find the person responsible. 

The narrative, interspersed by curious vignettes on the life of Alexander Graham Bell, the official creator of the telephone, shows Albom’s special regard for the power of voice — Little surprise, considering his own history. A series of strokes robbed his mother of the ability to speak in 2010. When his mentor, Morrie Schwartz, understood that he was dying, he asked Albom to visit his grave periodically, so as to continue their conversations. According to Albom, Schwartz had told him: “When I’m dead, you talk, I’ll listen.”

The process of speaking is the central keystone of Albom’s regard of that special relationship called love. That this book will reach the bestseller’s list is a tribute of how important we mere mortals place to the power of communication. But it will not be the only reason. 

This is the kind of book that will be passed around freely among congregations of Christians, especially in the middle, southwest Baptist belts of the US. The author will be invited to appear on religious channels to expound on what inspired him to write the story. For many, its heartwarming conclusion will create perfect feelings of goodwill as we start the New Year. All this is no coincidence. Albom is clearly aware of the audience for this book. 

His characters may be full of life, but they are also tied at the wrist. The fiction in First Phone Call... can hardly be called Hemingway-esque. It does not deal with the quantifiable, earth-bound components of human condition, but seeks to offer vague, transcendental, if comforting truths. In his emulation of Houdini, Albom gives us magical possibilities. But magic, as Houdini confessed, is simply sleight of hand, a way of making the ordinary extraordinary by hiding the central component of logical progression.

In Sully’s interactions with Liz, the crippled but beautiful 20-something town librarian, we see the germination of genuine human interaction. The brave thing would have been to see Sully and Liz fall in love, despite their difference in age, despite their health. Instead, what we see is Liz becoming a babysitter for Sully’s son. Honest human interaction could be a faux pas to all those genteel, sweater-vested folks of the Bible belt — and a fatal blow to a rising, genre novelist.

For the rest of us, the book might provide an hour or two of safe distraction, some eye-rolling and perhaps, if we are lucky, aid our own musings on life and death, on that quixotic philosophical conundrum of where we came from and where we are going. 

The first phone call from Heaven
Mitch Albom
Harper Collins2013, pp 312

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