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Albom's 'Heaven' explores the influential characters in life

'The Five People You Meet in Heaven': A Novel; Mitch Albom; Hyperion: 200 pp., $19.95

October 14, 2003|Bernadette Murphy | Special to The Times

Mitch Albom, author of the runaway bestseller "Tuesdays With Morrie," explores similar life-cherishing themes in "The Five People You Meet in Heaven," a succinct first novel in which he employs parable to examine the role even insignificant lives play in the overarching web of life. The tale, like its main character, is a modest one, belying a simple wisdom beneath the surface.

Eddie is an amusement park mechanic who's had a less than stellar existence: He's "a squat, white-haired old man, with a short neck, a barrel chest, thick forearms, and a faded army tattoo on his right shoulder. His legs were thin and veined now, and his left knee, wounded in the war, was ruined by arthritis." Eddie served his country in battle, married, lost his wife early, has no children and has lived his whole life in the place where he was born. "Kid," he tells a young man he works with, "I never been anywhere I wasn't shipped to with a rifle." Life hasn't turned out the way he planned. Instead of escaping the world of his emotionally distant father -- and Ruby Pier, the seedy oceanfront amusement park where his father worked as head of maintenance -- Eddie has ended up taking over his father's job. "Many times he had longed to leave the place, find different work, build another kind of life," Albom tells us. "But the war came. His plans never worked out. In time, he found himself graying and wearing looser pants and in a state of weary acceptance, that this was who he was and who he would always be, a man with sand in his shoes in a world of mechanical laughter and grilled frankfurters."

On his 83rd birthday, Eddie dies while trying to save a girl from a runaway cart on Freddy's Free Fall. He proceeds to heaven, where he meets the Blue Man, a sideshow freak from Eddie's childhood who has been waiting for him. "There are five people you meet in heaven," the Blue Man tells Eddie. "Each of us was in your life for a reason. You may not have known the reason at the time, and that is what heaven is for. For understanding your life on earth."

It turns out that the Blue Man, whom Eddie can hardly recall, died because Eddie, age 7, had rushed in front of his car in pursuit of a ball. The Blue Man braked in time, but the jolt of adrenaline caused a heart attack a few blocks later. "[D]eath doesn't just take someone," the Blue Man explains, "it misses someone else, and in the small distance between being taken and being missed, lives are changed." We all affect each other's lives, even if we don't see the connection, Albom suggests.

One by one, Eddie meets his five people, and after each encounter he views his personal history differently, having internalized their stories and learned the lessons they offer. The Blue Man, for his part, teaches Eddie that "there are no random acts. That we are all connected. That you can no more separate one life from another than you can separate a breeze from the wind."

Interspersed with these Ghost-of-Christmas-Past visitations are scenes from Eddie's various birthdays, beginning with his actual birth and leading to the day he died, giving readers a panoramic view of his life and where it intersected the lives of the five messengers.

To Eddie's dismay, heaven is not a place full of angels, harp music and everlasting peace. Rather, each person creates his or her own afterlife. The Blue Man's is Ruby's Pier as it existed 75 years earlier, and Eddie's wife, Marguerite -- the fourth person he meets -- travels in her paradise from wedding to wedding, enjoying nuptials in every corner of the globe. Eddie is perplexed. "[T]his place don't make no sense to me," he protests. "Ain't you supposed to have peace when you die?"

You have only the peace you make with yourself, he learns, and the five people are there to help him gain acceptance and serenity.

The parable works and it's clear in its lessons. Occasionally Albom lapses into triteness, substituting cliches for hard-won truths: "Strangers ... are just family you have yet to come to know," and "The only time we waste is the time we spend thinking we are alone." But there's much wisdom here. If the story doesn't quite reach the heights of enlightenment, it offers common-sense insight, along with an earnest meditation on the intrinsic value of human life.

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