Sun, Sep 28, 2003 - Page 18 News List

Two perspectives on life through the prism of death

Two guys named Eddie, both of them at death's door, give inspirational advice about how to live the good life in two separate books

By Janet Maslin  /  NY TIMES NEWS SERVICE

The Five People You Meet in Heaven
By Mitch Albom
196 pages
Hyperion
Bleachers
By John Grisham
163 pages
Doubleday

Here are little books full of big advice, each dedicated to the idea that you can learn an awful lot from a gruff old guy named Eddie. John Grisham's Bleachers revolves around coach Eddie Rake, who has taught a small town's high school athletes practically everything they know.

Meanwhile Mitch Albom, author of Tuesdays With Morrie, reworks It's a Wonderful Life to include an Eddie inspired by his own uncle. Get out your handkerchiefs as this Eddie takes a Technicolor, special-effects-filled trip to the Great Beyond and realizes how different the world would have been without him.

Each Eddie is at death's door as his best-selling inspirational story begins. In The Five People You Meet in Heaven,Albom ticks off the last minutes of his character's life. His Eddie works at an amusement park and will sacrifice his life to save a little girl on a runaway ride. Eddie's journey after his demise is manipulatively but touchingly geared to readers seeking consolation in a post-9/11 world.

The prospect of having Eddie's life flash before his eyes is not nearly dynamic enough for Albom. So, "A sudden wind lifted Eddie, and he spun like a pocket watch on the end of a chain. An explosion of smoke engulfed him, swallowing his body in a flume of colors. The sky seemed to pull in, until he could feel it touching his skin like a gathered blanket. Then it shot away and exploded into jade. Stars appeared, millions of stars, like salt sprinkled across the greenish firmament." Though Eddie has reached heaven by now, it sounds more like he's gone to the movies.

Nobody ever went broke by describing heaven's amenities. A current book called A Travel Guide to Heaven is even crass enough to envision it as a five-star resort run by God and stocked with dead celebrities. ("How would you like to discuss literature with Jane Austen, or have Albert Einstein personally explain to you the workings of the universe?") But Albom's idea of spirituality is more sincere, give or take the odd picturesque parlor trick. Speaking of tricks, one of the five people of the title is a man whose skin is blue.

"Strangers are just family you have not yet come to know," the Blue Man reveals to Eddie. (He also reveals that drinking a nightly dose of silver nitrate can effect one's complexion.) And another incontrovertible pearl, "No life is a waste. The only time we waste is the time we spend thinking we are alone."

The Five People You Meet in Heaven can be reduced to a string of such reassuring verities and a list of who Eddie's five people turn out to be. (Handkerchief hint: One of them is his dead wife, young and beautiful again, with Judy Garland's rendition of You Made Me Love You playing as background music.) But that would do an injustice to a book with the genuine power to stir and comfort its readers. Albom describes the point of this book as wishing to make people like "my uncle, and others like him -- people who felt unimportant here on Earth -- realize, finally, how much they mattered and how much they were loved."

Grisham's Bleachers summons more of a love-hate situation. Coach Eddie Rake was so tough on his athletes that the whole little town of Messina found him a polarizing presence. As the coach's best quarterback, the high school All-American Neely Crenshaw, returns to Messina on the eve of Rake's death, Grisham kicks up all the pride, regret, memorabilia and hard-won wisdom generally associated with the phrase "glory days."

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