Albom's `Five People' - simple values

October 12, 2003|By Michael E. Waller | Michael E. Waller,SPECIAL TO THE SUN

The Five People You Meet in Heaven, by Mitch Albom. Hyperion. 198 pages. $19.95.

After writing Tuesdays With Morrie, a book about the lessons in life learned from an old college professor that sold 5.7 million hardcover copies, what do you do for an encore?

You turn to your first attempt at fiction and offer your own lessons in life.

That's what Mitch Albom, the longtime Detroit Free Press sports columnist, has done with The Five People You Meet in Heaven.

Remember Morrie's unusual perspective of thinking he was lucky to be dying of a fatal disease because it gave him time to say goodbye to his family and friends? Mitch now offers his own profound perspective: There is no such thing as an unremarkable life. Morrie would be proud of him.

Albom's novel is about Eddie, a war veteran determined to avoid the ordinary life of his father. Instead, he winds up replacing his dad as the chief maintenance man at a seaside amusement park. After a lifetime of repairing all the rides, Eddie is killed on his 83rd birthday trying to save a little girl falling from a cart on Freddie's Free Fall, the new "tower drop" ride. Thus the story starts at the end of his life, which is really a beginning.

Eddie discovers that heaven is not the beautiful paradise so many of us envision but a spot where five people explain your existence on Earth and the true purpose of your life.

Part of the fun of reading this modern-day Book of Proverbs is discovering the identity of the five people. All but one turn out to be surprises. By the time you meet the third person, you're beginning to regret that this is fiction.

Albom imparts his lessons in life through the five people. Some of his themes echo Morrie's: Loyalty is important, love outlives life, anger and hate are poisons. All are simple yet profound.

Albom uses flashbacks, almost always on Eddie's birthdays, to reveal the details of Eddie's life. He keeps the tension alive by leading Eddie on a quest to make sense of his yesterdays and discover whether he managed to save the girl from the falling cart. His style is reminiscent of Hemingway's in his journalism apprenticeship at The Kansas City Star, where he adhered to its rules of writing: Use short sentences, use short first paragraphs, use vigorous English, eliminate every superfluous word.

That such a well-written book comes from a sportswriter should be no surprise. Many of journalism's best writers - Red Smith, Jim Murray, Dave Kindred - plied their crafts on the sports pages.

The Five People You Meet in Heaven should appeal to thousands of people who are searching for inspiration and values in their lives. Yet Albom's marvelous vision of heaven doesn't quite match the genius of Tuesday's With Morrie. So I guess Five People will sell only 4 million hard copies.

Michael E. Waller, former chairman and publisher of The Sun, spent 41 years working in newspapers, 23 as a senior editor at five newspapers before being named a publisher of The Sun in 1994. He also served as editor of The Kansas City Star and Times and The Hartford Courant. He thinks Tuesdays With Morrie is one of the most inspiring books ever written.

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