The passions of Mitch Albom.

Dissecting the mainstream.
Sept. 28 2006 6:29 PM

Heaven Is His Playground

The passions of Mitch Albom.

Illustration by Charlie Powell. Click image to expand.

When we last saw inspirational author Mitch Albom, he stood accused of faking it. On April 3, 2005, Albom, a sports columnist at the Detroit Free Press, published a column saluting two pro basketball players for returning to watch their alma mater play in the NCAA tournament. The column was a misty reflection on the transience of youth and the heady glories of college life—an invention, it turned out. Albom had turned in his column a few days ahead of time, and the pros neglected to show up for the game. In the brouhaha that followed, Albom was roasted by his fellow journalists, while millions of readers, who couldn't have cared less, trudged to the shelves to buy his books Tuesdays With Morrie (1997) and The Five People You Meet in Heaven (2003). Somehow, Albom escaped without receiving the evisceration he deserved.

Albom's new novel, For One More Day, provides just such an opportunity. So, here goes: Mitch Albom is a fabulist all right, but not just in the journalistic sense. Albom is literally a teller of fables, a peddler of shallow morality tales for the masses. You can see it in his risible sports writing, and you can see it in his best-selling books. A representative of Starbucks, which will sell For One More Day as part of its new books promotion, told the Los Angeles Times that the chain wanted its literary selections to be "deeply felt." Albom's writing is deeply felt, and dimly thought. He's a huckster evangelist for the soccer-mom set.

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When Albom came to the Detroit Free Press in 1985, at age 27, he was already deeply felt. In his inaugural column, he declared he would examine "a side of the sports leaf that rarely gets turned over, the human side." For those of us who spend our mornings with our nose buried in the sports page, this was a dire warning. In sports, the "human side" does not usually refer to nuanced, adult emotion. It usually refers to schmaltz—cheap sentiment and "human interest" stories. Albom was staking his claim to become the Bob Greene of sports—a twice-weekly dispenser of fables. His column often starts with a desperate situation ("This is a story about a boxer and a cop and it begins deep in the city … ") and then gradually brightens before depositing the reader in a happy and hopeful state 900 words later.

For his columns (since collected in a compendium called The Live Albom), Albom sought out tragic cases—athletes ravaged by injury, athletes imprisoned in rehab, athletes facing impossible odds. (He once reported, incorrectly, that an Olympian from Equatorial Guinea had trained in a river teeming with crocodiles.) Albom's wayward athletes became quasi-biblical figures, sipping something that smelled like watered-down religious redemption. Here's Albom from 1996, on John Foley, a former high-school basketball star who was maimed in a drunken-driving accident:

In his last happy moments, he was a guy you might have envied. Handsome, athletic, 6-foot-2, water-blue eyes, a charmer with women. It was close to Christmas and his buddies were out at the Goat Farm bar on Novi Road. John Foley, only 22 years old, had a few beers with them. And a few more …

This is a story about how the world changes in an instant. Christmas Eve launches many a drunk-driving story. Some end in death, and those are frightening enough.

This one ends in life. This one ends not in how you might leave this world, but how you might rejoin it, damaged forever, limping uphill.

This one is the most frightening of all.

Albom was one of the most famous sportswriters in America, but it took Tuesdays With Morrie, Albom's first nonsports book, to make him into a best-selling author. In 1994, Morrie Schwartz, Albom's favorite college professor, was diagnosed with Lou Gehrig's disease. The gnomish Schwartz offered himself up to Albom as a "human textbook": an object lesson in how to die. Albom visited Schwartz every week and faithfully transcribed Schwartz's utterances on family and love. "Morrie would walk that final bridge between life and death, and narrate the trip," Albom wrote later.This idea—that proximity to death will reveal all the secrets of the universe—animates just about everything Albom has written since.

After the smashing success of Morrie, which sold more than 10 million copies, Albom moved to fiction. Best I can figure, it's because real people, even impossibly inspiring figures like Morrie, were much too human for Albom. The Five People You Meet in Heaven opens as a wizened and benevolent carnival worker named Eddie dies and begins a slow journey into heaven. He is guided on this quest by five people whose lives he touched—a sideshow freak, a lost love, and so forth. In Albom's new novel, For One More Day, an ex-major leaguer named Chick Benetto is an alcoholic and negligent father. When he tries to commit suicide, he awakens to find his dead mother hovering nearby. This time, Mom will take him through the redemptive trip.

Even if you accept both as fables, what emerges is a rather unsatisfying vision of heaven. In the preface to Five People, Albom explained heaven as a place where "people who felt unimportant here on earth [would] realize, finally, how much they mattered and how they were loved."In Albom's heaven, you confront your earthly disappointments—your father's neglect, your stunted relationships—in the same way you would if you were sitting down for an interview with Barbara Walters. The afterlife affords you no higher level of consciousness. It merely reveals the mundane secrets of the past. (So that's how Mom paid my college tuition!) The wisdom is dispensed not by God but the author. "Every family is a ghost story," Albom writes in For One More Day."All parents damage their children," he writes in Five People. And later: "Love, like rain, can nourish from above, drenching couples with a soaking joy."

The Five People You Meet in Heaven had its sweet moments. But in For One More Day, Albom has gotten so obsessed with death and its edifying properties that he crosses into some very uncomfortable territory. As he puts it, "Have you ever lost someone you love and wanted one more conversation, one more chance to make up for the time when you thought they would be here forever? … What if you got it back?"

Well, what if you did? The last time someone asked me that question, I asked if his elementary school had a grief counselor. It's hard to believe this is an idea hatched by an adult writer—a man who presumably knows that death, and the uneasy feelings that swirl around it, is far too complicated to be solved in a day. In For One More Day, Chick celebrates his extra day with Mom by feasting on her home cooking, reminiscing about Halloween costumes, and, of course, reliving his childhood traumas. What advice does Mom impart to set things right? "Forgive." Forgive who? "Yourself," says Mom. At which point Chick awakens very much alive. My first thought was that this was dreadfully shallow. My second thought was that this Albomian koan seemed awfully familiar. And, sure enough, there it was, on Page 166 of Tuesdays With Morrie. "It's not just other people we need to forgive, Mitch," Morrie says. "We also need to forgive ourselves."