November 15, 2007


I Never Saw Paris: A Novel of the Afterlife. By Harry I. Freund. Carroll & Graf/Da Capo. $23.

Deadline. By Chris Crutcher. Greenwillow/HarperCollins. $16.99.

      These books, one for adults and one for teenagers, get (++++) ratings because of what they try so hard to do: find ways of dealing with death without being unutterably morbid or traditionally religious. Given some of their flaws in plotting, pacing and overall structure, they would receive (+++) ratings if they had a more conventional underlying subject. But the sheer boldness of what they are attempting to do bumps them up to something approaching must-reads.

      I Never Saw Paris starts when five people die: four strangers on a New York City street corner and a driver, asleep at the wheel, who ploughs into them and kills them all. We never see the accident – only the aftermath, as the narrator of the story, deceased businessman Irving Caldman, observes the scene while floating into the presence of the angel Malakh. Now, here’s where Harry I. Freund’s novel starts to get interesting (and this happens within just a couple of pages): Malakh is a bureaucrat, one of an angelic group dedicated to processing souls into the afterlife so they can be judged and assigned to be where they belong. Caldman is accompanied by a personal shopper, a grandmother and housekeeper, a young interior decorator who is gay, and the elderly concentration-camp survivor who killed them all. Freund does not intend at the start for these people to be more than types, but what happens as the book goes on is that he forces readers to see them – all of them – as more than the sum of their appearances and life histories, which each must recount in detail to Malakh (who of course knows all about them already). The five souls prove recalcitrant for various good and sufficient reasons that Freund brings neatly into the plot, and Malakh, an impatient and plainspoken sort, tries to force things along by bringing other angels to visit the group and even through a divide-and-conquer strategy: “Why don’t the two of you submit to the judgment, let the others take their sweet time? Why should you suffer? I’m going to help you here, Essie, what do you say?” But the five souls have bonded in death as they never would have or could have in life, and each speaks up forcefully in areas of his or her particular knowledge or expertise, and Malakh gets more and more frustrated, until he (it?) finally brings in some real heavy artillery – resulting in an ending that is patently absurd, but emotionally quite satisfying. Wry, humorous, yet with thoughtfulness underneath, I Never Saw Paris overcomes its own silliness through bright writing and the sheer humaneness of its message.

      Chris Crutcher’s Deadline is in some ways the opposite of Freund’s book. Freund requires his characters to try to cope with immediate and unexpected death. Crutcher writes about spending a year dealing with the knowledge that you are going to die. Ben Wolf, high-school senior, gets the bad news when he goes for his track-team physical – a never-specified aggressive blood disease will claim his life within a year. In the first and most crucial of several implausibilities of the plot, Ben decides to forgo treatment and not to tell anyone about his disease – nor to allow his doctor to tell anyone. Relying on being 18 and therefore legally an adult, and on the fact that he lives in a very small town, Ben strong-arms the doctor into keeping quiet and letting him simply take nutritional supplements and lead as normal a life as possible. The disease cooperates, staying dormant until Ben works through all his major desires before it starts to weaken him. This bare-bones plot outline makes the book sound much worse than it is; to make it sound worse still, it could be mentioned that Ben encounters, in his dreams, a spiritual entity called “Hey-Soos” who may or may not have something to do with Jesus and may or may not be an aspect of Ben’s own personality. But the thing is that the absurdities of Crutcher’s framework matter much less than the inventive and meaningful way he uses his plot. Ben, a virgin, sets his sights on a particular girl and does have sex with her (apparently only once); then he and she become emotionally entangled in a very meaningful way, and he learns a deep secret that she has kept for years. Ben encounters the town drunk, tries to reform him, and learns a series of secrets – each more powerful and disturbing than the last – about him. Ben bonds deeply with the football coach (he has improbably become a football star after deciding he has nothing to lose by trying), and plumbs his depths. There is less depth to Ben’s brother, Cody, until a neat twist ending, and there is very little to Ben’s parents, except for his mother being so far around the bend that she is practically in the next county. But Ben, in uncovering so many depths in so many others, becomes a deeper person himself (even when he treats some of those others, notably his girlfriend, very shabbily). And this is why, when Ben gets no reprieve at the end, readers are likely to celebrate as much as mourn him – which is a heck of a reaction for Crutcher to have managed to create.

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