God's five-star resort

Welcome to heaven, where you'll learn Important Lessons -- and look fabulous! Eat all you want without getting fat! But watch out for dinosaur crap, and leave that bong at home.

Published October 13, 2003 8:00PM (EDT)

In David Lynch's 1977 film "Eraserhead," a tiny, smiling lady with carbuncled cheeks lives in the hero's radiator and sings, "In heaven, everything is fine. You've got your good thing and I've got mine." You'd think this would be all anyone needs to know about the afterlife's better half, but apparently not; maybe heaven can wait, but we can't. Lately, writers seem particularly compelled to describe in detail a place that traditionally just gets sketched in outline. The clouds, wings and halos of New Yorker cartoons and Hollywood movies no longer suffice.

This fall, as a follow-up to his gazillion-selling inspirational book "Tuesdays With Morrie," Mitch Albom has chosen to tell us all about "The Five People You Meet in Heaven"; and lesser mortal (at least by bestseller-list standards) Anthony DeStefano offers "A Travel Guide to Heaven." Of course the most popular recent depiction of heaven appears in Alice Sebold's "The Lovely Bones," a novel narrated by the young victim of a homicidal rapist, who watches the doings on earth from her celestial perch. Sebold is far less blatant about it than Albom and DeStefano, but like most accounts of the adventures of the dead, hers is primarily a commentary on how to live.

Talking about the fire and brimstone in the other place used to be the favored way of bringing the faithful back into line, but the rhetoric of the carrot has replaced that of the stick. Americans may be an overwhelmingly religious nation, but there are so many religions to choose from, it's foolish to rely on brand loyalty. Latin-American Catholic immigrants are defecting to evangelical sects at record rates; old-time Protestants turn New Age; Jews take up Buddhism. In such a crowded marketplace, top-notch promotion becomes essential, and nothing shapes our fantasies about the next life as fiercely as our anxieties about this one.

"The Lovely Bones" appeared during a summer, nearly a year after the Sept. 11 attacks, in which the abductions of several young girls got an excessive amount of media coverage. The idea that malevolent forces might randomly snatch away the family and friends of average Americans -- always a possibility, but one that usually seems remote unless you happen to watch a lot of "Unsolved Mysteries" -- was like a low-pitched hum growing gradually louder until its intrusion could not be ignored. The missing-girl hysteria of the summer of 2002 surely was (as critic Daniel Mendelsohn observed in the New York Review of Books) a displaced response to the even less fathomable losses of the previous September, and "The Lovely Bones" was its made-to-order balm.

Albom writes the kind of book that does well no matter what the historical moment or mood. Ordinarily, book reviewers and other people who consider themselves literary don't read them. When we do, as occasionally happens with superhits like "The Celestine Prophecy," it usually ends in our colleagues being subjected to cranky diatribes about the shocking state of American literacy. In her new memoir, "So Many Books, So Little Time" (an account of 52 books read in the course of a year), Sara Nelson describes picking up Albom's "Tuesdays With Morrie," hoping that she'd be able to commiserate about such snobbishness with the friend who recommended it. No such luck. She figures the book for "a cynical attempt to cash in on the spiritual self-improvement movement" in which, improbably, "a middle class, 40-something, Brandeis-educated writer had to travel weekly across the country to learn the kinds of rules that were posted on [her son's] kindergarten classroom wall."

So the biggest surprise of "The Five People You Meet in Heaven" is how, without actually being good, it manages to be not as bad as you expect. The book is, it must be said, a little nugget of impacted platitudes, but except for a lot of one-line paragraphs, the writing is unaffected and concrete. Albom's intention, to show the worth in the life of an ordinary workingman, seems honorable enough, especially when you consider the kind of high-powered businessmen and overextended working moms who usually figure in this sort of writing. The book might actually encourage some of the people who read it to think about someone who isn't much like themselves, though that might be too much to hope. However, like the animatronic Abraham Lincoln on display at the Hall of Presidents in Disneyland, this novel is fundamentally ersatz, less something you can feel good about than an eerie and not entirely convincing reproduction of something you can feel good about.

"The Five People You Meet in Heaven" describes the afterlife of Eddie, a man too humble, it seems, to merit a last name. He has worked as a maintenance guy at the same boardwalk amusement park for most of his 83 years, and dies trying to save a little girl (naturally) from a plummeting roller-coaster car. Once dead, he is whisked through a series of semi-corporeal tableaux in which he meets five individuals who -- mirabile dictu! -- have five very important lessons to convey to him. I know the suspense is probably killing you, so here are the lessons: 1) We're all connected; 2) sacrifice is an important part of life; 3) anger will eat you up from the inside; 4) life has to end, but love doesn't; and 5) well, this last one isn't that clear because the designated person doesn't speak very good English, but my guess is that it's something along the lines of: There's a reason for everything that happens to you.

It's debatable whether, having been told this, you have much cause to read Albom's book. Agreeably written as it is, the novel is less a work of art or even of craftsmanship than it is a delivery system for those five lessons. Most readers, if they're honest, will admit that they hope to learn something from literature. But art -- or even, for that matter, excellent entertainment -- has another aspect to it that makes it more precious to us than utilitarian texts like instruction manuals and lists of the city's best restaurants. A great book (let's say "Great Expectations") does teach us something (about the futility of longing for what we can't have, in the case of Dickens' masterpiece), but it also exists for its own sake. What's good about it inheres in what it is.

Eddie's experiences in heaven have the purpose of explaining to him the purpose of his life on earth. He died thinking that his 83 years were something of a waste: His "plans never worked out," his beloved wife dies young and childless and he works the same job that his unaffectionate and sometimes violent father held before him. "This is the greatest gift God can give you: to understand what happened in your life. To have it explained," says one of Eddie's posthumous teachers. That explanation ultimately lies in the novel's final encounter, in which what Eddie thought of as squandered years and labor are revealed to be compensation for an injury he didn't realize he'd committed.

In this strange, quasi-secular view of the universe, life turns out to be an equation that adds up perfectly, even if we don't figure it out ourselves until after the end. What life isn't is something with an irreducible meaning all its own, just as "The Five People You Meet in Heaven" has no real value beyond the inspirational messages it contains. As life-affirming as Albom's book is meant to be, its effect is the opposite, at least from a humanist point of view, which holds that life and art are ends in themselves. Their sums are more than the total of all their explanations. What perturbs some readers about this kind of book is not just snobbery, but the betrayal of that principle and the creepy emptiness at the heart of such enterprises.

No doubt that opinion would get me stopped at the celestial security checkpoint imagined by Anthony DeStefano in "A Travel Guide to Heaven." His book begins with a kittenish "Special Preboarding Announcement" asking "that you check the following items at the gate before boarding: gloominess, stuffiness, cynicism, pessimism, intellectual snobbery, closed-mindedness, self-righteousness and prejudice against God or religion." I beg to differ; that kind of baggage -- otherwise known as healthy skepticism -- is exactly what you need to fully appreciate what's on offer in this consumer-age paean to the hereafter. I'd no more consider leaving my cynicism behind than DeStefano would contemplate surrendering his italics or -- heaven forfend! -- his exclamation points.

DeStefano, a Roman Catholic, worries that his fellow Christians fail to appreciate the fact that "God himself is outrageous." They might even harbor suspicions that heaven is "boring." DeStefano isn't the first to voice this concern. Mark Twain wrote on more than one occasion that the popular conception of heaven lacked allure. He found the wings, the robes, the harps and the singing a decidedly unappealing package. In "Letters From Earth" (purportedly missives sent by an exiled Satan to the angels back home), he derides man for creating an imaginary heaven of little charm: "I give you my word, it has not a single feature in it that he actually values. It consists -- utterly and entirely -- of diversions which he cares next to nothing about, here in the earth, yet is quite sure he will like them in heaven." In Twain's last published work, "Captain Stormfield's Visit to Heaven," new arrivals get issued the expected paraphernalia because that's what they expect; most jettison the stuff after a couple of weeks.

Clearly, heaven needs a makeover, and here comes DeStefano to the rescue. Instead of picturing endless cloud banks and angelic choruses, we should understand that "God is the king of all travel agents and heaven is his five-star resort." Furthermore, heaven is an actual, material place, not an altered state of being, and its human inhabitants will occupy physical bodies -- the same ones they had while alive, only much, much better. And yet, the same.

Many lapsed Catholics will recognize in this an entrée into the Scholastic arguments with church doctrine that preceded their departure from the faith. The doctrine is a vast Rube Goldberg device in which primitive beliefs (the resurrected-body thing, for example) have become the occasion for elaborate theological work-arounds. For every sharp-witted question a kid ever posed to a nun, they've got answers. They've had 2,000 years to come up with this stuff.

So, according to DeStefano, who claims Scripture and the writings of such theologians as St. Augustine and Thomas Aquinas as his sources, you get your body back, only it's young, healthy and slender. Even if you were born suffering from severe disabilities, you'll be as robust as an "Olympic athlete." This body will not be subject to the usual vulnerabilities, cravings, flaws and other limitations. It will be "indestructible," "totally subservient to our wills" and able to transcend time and space. In other words, it'll resemble our earthly bodies only it won't be like them in any imaginable aspect, since it won't have the same appearance, properties or capabilities. If you're having trouble wrapping your brain around that one, picture being the "superheroes with their incredible superpowers" in comic books.

Despite having worked out this particular issue in great detail, and devoting an entire chapter on the question of whether our pets get to join us in our great reward, DeStefano suddenly goes vague on a matter of particular interest to Twain: Is there sex in heaven? Twain's Satan marvels that man "has imagined a heaven, and has left entirely out of it the supremest of all his delights, the one ecstasy that stands first and foremost in the heart of every individual of his race -- and of ours -- sexual intercourse!" According to DeStefano, "No one is really sure of the answer to that question ... God certainly wouldn't want to trivialize the gift of sex by allowing it to be used by random partners, indiscriminately," even though in heaven he will let us eat whatever we want without getting fat.

Apparently, although "God is a sensualist" who plans to make our afterlives "a feast for the senses," there are limits to his "outrageousness." Anything that has been "classified as sinful and ungodly" is dead out, and that means marijuana, you depraved potheads! On the subject of alcohol and caffeine, though, DeStefano remains curiously silent. Can you smoke? Are only illegal drugs banned from heaven? What if a drug is legal in some states, or maybe just decriminalized? Can we go over the part where unbaptized babies get sent to Limbo again?

Where all this really falls apart, though, is in the continuing-education division of DeStefano's heaven: "How would you like to go fishing with Ernest Hemingway? Or play catch with Joe DiMaggio? How would you like to discuss literature with Jane Austen, or have Albert Einstein personally explain to you the workings of the universe?" A lot, maybe. But, more importantly, how would Jane Austen like to discuss literature with any and every nitwit who comes knocking on her door? If she's like most very smart writers who don't suffer fools gladly, my guess is not much. For Pete's sake, even a $10 hooker gets to take a night off now and then. The heaven of a million ardent book-group members could easily become one writer's hell.

But why should Jane Austen worry about that, when she can look forward to frolicking through "the vacation that never ends," where she can witness "friendly lions and monkeys playing with brontosaurs and stegosaurs" and "walk through the streets of old Paris, or Renaissance Florence, or the China of the Ming Dynasty," noshing on curly fries with nary a thought for her waistline? The more you read about DeStefano's heaven -- the angelic "tour guides," the unending array of activities and attractions, the sanitary absence of anything difficult or unpleasant, and the perpetual company of one's immediate family -- the more familiar it all starts to sound. To savor these delights for all eternity, DeStefano recommends that we exercise all the admirable practices of true Christianity. But if you hanker after the quick fix -- as Americans do, and who but an American would conceive of this sort of heaven? -- there's an easier way: It starts with a ticket to Orlando.

By Laura Miller

Laura Miller is the author of "The Magician's Book: A Skeptic's Adventures in Narnia."

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