Ambassador of the afterlife


His books may not wow critics, but his fans love him

Catching Up With ... Mitch Albom

December 14, 2003|By Alex Beam | Alex Beam,BOSTON GLOBE

The scene at the Borders megastore in downtown Boston resembles a Howard Dean flash mob. Noontime in-store readings can be lonely affairs, and this one hasn't been widely promoted, but 300 people have jammed the store's modest-size speaking area, sitting on the floor and wedging themselves in among the shelves.

Who's here? Mitch Albom, a longtime sports columnist for the Detroit Free Press and author of Tuesdays With Morrie, one of the most successful nonfiction books of the past decade. Morrie, Albom's rendering of the deathbed wisdom of Morris Schwartz, his former Brandeis University sociology professor, sat on The New York Times best-seller list for 93 weeks. It sold more than 5 million copies in the U.S. and overseas and was produced for television by Oprah Winfrey.

Though the book's proceeds were shared with Schwartz's family, Morrie has made Albom rich, rich enough to evade questions about his wealth and several charitable foundations he funds. But it has also made Albom a lodestar for ordinary Americans' feelings and experiences about death.

"I've been on ESPN since 1988, and people used to come to me in airports and grab my arm and say, `Who's going to win the Super Bowl?' " Albom says. "Now they come up and say, `I have to tell you the story of how my father died.' When you are the author of Tuesdays With Morrie, you become the receptacle for other people's losses."

Albom, 47, was in Boston earlier this month promoting his new novel, The Five People You Meet in Heaven, a slender tome that author Frank McCourt, without apparent irony, compares to Homer's Odyssey. Five People narrates the afterlife of Eddie, an amusement park repairman who encounters characters from his past and learns that "each affects the other and the other affects the next, and the world is full of stories, but the stories are all one."

Some reviewers, like Scott Bernard Nelson of the Globe, have taken the novel's shortcomings in stride: "It's a sincere story that will ring hollow for many readers in this cynical age," Nelson wrote. "Albom is all Reader's Digest and no New Yorker." Others, including the critic for Albom's own paper, were less charitable. "How many ways can you define `superficial'?" was the first line of Carlo Wolff's review, which was so caustic that Albom's editors decided not to run it.

"I don't read reviews," says Albom in an interview between promotional appearances.

There is a reason he doesn't. About a year ago, the stage version of Tuesdays With Morrie opened in New York and received a harsh review in The New York Times. Because the play so closely followed the book, critic Bruce Weber attacked the source, calling it "one of those `life affirming' tomes with all the insight of a teenager's diary. All that's missing are the exclamation points. So true!!!"

To this day, Albom feels the sting of that attack. "It was so personal, it was so obvious that he was waiting to get at me for writing Tuesdays With Morrie. He killed me, not the play." Indeed, the play continued to run for several months.

Albom, who seems instinctually good-natured, becomes testy when asked about the shortcomings of Five People. When confronted with his bold assertion, at the beginning of a chapter, that "All parents damage their children" - Albom has no children - he counters, "I think you're taking that sentence out of context."

And why, from a man who graduated from a Jewish religious school, such a Gentile version of heaven? "I wanted this to be a book about life on earth," Albom says. "It's really a fable. I didn't write this to have religious overtones."

To disparaging critics, Albom has a surefire comeback: Look at the best-seller list. "I like Reader's Digest. I have a great relationship with my readers; people feel connected to me. I can tell that people like the writing, and that people like the spirit in the book. The first obligation of a writer is to his readers."

That same evening, Albom is nearing the end of his speech at a second Borders reading in Braintree, before a crowd twice the size of that morning's. In addition to being a sportswriter and author, Albom is also a gifted musician, a radio personality and an accomplished public speaker who uses humor and mimicry in his promotional talks:

"Folks, I don't think there is such a thing as wasted love. I always think of what Morrie said: Death ends a life but not a relationship. It's fine to go on loving someone who's not here.

"My uncle Eddie wasn't anybody special, but you can see from the stories I've told you that his life was special. ... Everybody matters."

Some sniffling can be heard in the audience. Standing just in front of me, Donna Richards turns to her friend Don English. "That was fantastic," she says. "You're right," English answers. "Unbelievable." Needless to say, these fans adore Albom. "He wasn't speaking about himself," English says. "He was speaking about love. It was a nice change."

"Ooooh ... I'm getting goosebumps!" Richards says. She walks off to have her purchases signed by Albom, who will linger until 11 p.m. after autographing 500 books. Her departing words: "I'll meet you in heaven."

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