For a book as tiny and gentle-looking as Mitch Albom’s The Next Person You Meet in Heaven ― a cover awash in soft blues and baby yellow featuring a pen-and-ink sketch of a hot-air balloon you should be able to purchase from Pottery Barn Kids in a gilt frame ― it contains an astonishing density of severed limbs.
Surely that will be no surprise to longtime fans of Albom. The Five People You Meet in Heaven, to which his latest novel is a sequel, came out 15 years ago, and, as I learned this week, it’s a bloodbath.
It follows Eddie, an elderly military veteran and maintenance man at a pier-side amusement park who dies while pushing a little girl out of the way of a falling ride. In heaven, he’s greeted by five people who touched his life, who help him make sense of his time on Earth. At least three of these people died violently because of, though unbeknownst to, him: in a car accident, a landmine explosion, a fire he set in a village in the Philippines, where he’d been held as a prisoner of war.
The Next Person You Meet in Heaven brings us to, well, the next person Eddie will meet in heaven: Annie, the little girl he saved. It turns out Annie’s hand was chopped off by the crashing ride, but successfully reattached. Still, the event colored her whole life. She’s now 30 and marrying her childhood sweetheart, Paulo, with whom she reconnected after years apart. The night of their wedding, through a credulity-straining sequence of events, Annie signs them up for a sunrise hot-air balloon ride the next morning.
The weather is gusty, the pilot loses control of the balloon, and a freak accident sets Annie’s heavenly passage in motion.
In the book’s acknowledgments, Albom is at pains to note that such hot air balloon accidents are exceedingly rare. Of course they are. But in a set of books littered with deaths, freak tragedies are the rule, not the exception. Even the people who don’t die in catastrophic accidents at least live through catastrophic accidents before they die, far too young, of cancer. (Peaceful old age is not on the menu.)
Maybe this is because you only get to heaven if your body is consumed in fire or crushed by machinery. As I doubt Albom really has a bead on which of us will pass through the sherbet-colored halls to paradise, I imagine it’s actually because it’s tougher to make a heavy-handed morality fable out of the life of a woman who does some quite good things and some rather bad things, then dies in her sleep at 92.
What do you do with that woman? How do you grapple with the more subtle shades of good and evil her life has encompassed? It’s a delicate task, and not one Albom’s toolset (sledgehammers, mainly) can tackle.
Reading The Next Person You Meet in Heaven, in 2018, is like watching a version of NBC’s moral philosophizing sitcom “The Good Place” that has had every stitch of nuance and humor surgically excised. In each, both life and afterlife feel like clinical, gamified versions of reality ― your every good act weighed against the bad, all to end up, following a freak accident, in a heaven that delivers exactly the kind of peace (abundant fro-yo, tasteful clogs, minimalist decor) that you could imagine while paging through an influencer’s Instagram on Earth. “The Good Place” manages to cleverly pick apart and complicate this simplified conception of goodness and its reward, while remaining suffused with genuine warmth toward its flawed characters.
But where “The Good Place” is kindly skeptical, The Next Person is blandly credulous. No truism undergoes examination; instead, Albom engineers a simulacrum of reality in which each tragedy has an equal and opposite silver lining, and in which life is lived in heroic gestures.
“Reading "The Next Person You Meet in Heaven," in 2018, is like watching a version of NBC’s moral philosophizing sitcom “The Good Place” that has had every stitch of nuance and humor surgically excised.”
Accordingly, The Next Person offers a world of jarring extremes, sketched out in workmanlike, thudding prose. That Albom restricts himself to soulful platitudes and basic exposition is a blessing, considering that when he gets arty we’re treated to gems like: “He had pale blue eyes, the color of shallow pool water, and a thick mop of raisin-black hair.” “Raisin-black hair” is the sort of hapless poetic flourish that reminds a reader that clichés became clichés for a reason: They evoke a real sensation, or at least they did the first time. The only creativity he indulges in, otherwise, are the baroque ways in which his insipid characters end up meeting five people in heaven.
Once in heaven, Annie sets about meeting her five people ― first, Sameer, the doctor who performed her hand reattachment. He entered the field because he underwent the first successful limb reattachment himself when, as a boy, his arm was ripped off by a train. He’s modeled on a real person, Everett Knowles ― except that Knowles did not become a surgeon after recovering from his landmark surgery. (What a convenient moral lesson it would be, though, if the young boy who benefited from that first surgery had paid it forward in such a literal fashion!)
Annie meets with her mother, who died of cancer years before, and from whom she’d been estranged at the time of the diagnosis. She finally learns that the overprotective behavior she revolted against was rooted in her mother’s past ― in her fear of an abusive ex-husband, Annie’s father, and of letting her daughter get hurt again.
She reconnects with someone who proves once and for all that dogs do go to heaven. And of course, she meets with Eddie.
Albom seems sincere in hammering home that each life matters, that earning potential, and race and class do not. His books argue, again and again, that each life is interconnected and that we must help and be open to each other. And yet, his People You Meet in Heaven books suggest that some victims are necessary props for the moral betterment of others.
The most stomach-churning chapter of The Five People You Meet in Heaven features Eddie meeting Tala, a little Filipino girl who died when he, escaping from military captors, set a hut on fire. She’s covered in the burns he inflicted on her; he sobs out apologies and then bathes her, scrubbing away her wounds and leaving her healthy and whole. She offers him absolution, telling him that he died saving Annie and that his maintenance work kept many other children safe through the years. Her suffering made him better.
In The Next Person You Meet in Heaven, Tala is back. When Eddie introduces her to Annie, she’s again blistered and burned. Now Annie needs to learn a lesson, and Tala’s ravaged skin again becomes the medium for the message. There’s no end, it seems, to Tala’s didactic use, to the grotesque ritual of parading her brutalized body in front of some white grown-ups ― including her killer ― to give them the grace of remorse or understanding.
“I needed to save you,” Eddie tells Annie. “It let me make up for the life I took. That’s how salvation works. The wrongs we do open doors to do right.”
One gets the uncomfortable sense that Albom’s ideal of goodness depends on people being left vulnerable to violence, poverty and abuse because ameliorating those evils is what allows other people to flex their virtue muscles.
Albom, who now spends more time on his charity ventures than writing, has done a great deal of good in his life. A 2015 BuzzFeed profile by Doree Shafrir found him in Haiti, overseeing the orphanage he runs there. The children seemed to adore him; a teacher at the school praised how much he’d done to elevate the orphanage. But there were also sour notes, a tang of the white savior benevolently surveying his noble savages.
He spoke of limiting the children’s exposure to advertising and to “the wrong kind of music” and to “TV shows where the parents are all stupid and the kids are all smart.” He would only show them carefully selected movies. The idea was to preserve their sense of respect for elders, their compliance in a world order he misses. The children, he said, “don’t have very much in the way of possessions and we keep it that way.” He would give them one toy monthly, when he visited; at the end of the year, “they have to give them away to charity or the outside.”
Because of these restrictions, he said, “it’s a great experiment.”
If this sentiment seems a bit chilly, that’s fitting. A fundamental coolness lies at the heart of Albom’s fiction, a vacancy where the beating human heart should be. His Heaven books purport to celebrate the warm interconnectedness of humanity; they clamor insistently that heaven lies in other people. But Albom’s vision of paradise betrays that what he sees in other people is, in fact, hell. Heaven is escaping from them.
In Albom’s books, heaven is supposed to be a long-awaited homecoming, but it actually seems like a lonely place. Everyone seems to live in a tightly controlled personal simulation of an ideal spot on Earth, the dictators of their own tiny experiments.
Eddie hints that he’s there with his wife because it wouldn’t be heaven without her. (What if she’d gone to hell? What if he’d remarried after her death, to someone he loved equally? What if her heaven involved being as far away from him as possible? These questions remain unresolved, and they haunt me!)
Mostly, we meet person after person whose idea of heaven is so particular to them that they seem almost definitionally solitary: Sameer, maimed as a boy by a train, now spends eternity at the controls of a divine train that will never hurt him; Annie’s overburdened, fearful mother now rests forever on the bank of a serene blue river. Despite Albom’s disdain for the excesses of American cultural commerce ― the wrong kinds of music, the TV shows ― this conception of heaven as a sort of magical luxury real estate development in the sky slots seamlessly into our capitalistic devotion to lifestyle porn.
When other people appear in these personal heavens, they’re decorative above all. Eddie now lives in a heavenly version of his Ruby Pier, watching all the children he kept safe romp freely. These kids fill Eddie’s afterlife to bring him joy and satisfaction. Are they divine phantasms or the real souls of children? What do they feel? It doesn’t matter.
I’m reminded of Albom telling BuzzFeed, at his Haitian orphanage, that it’s “a great privilege here to see real childhood.” Albom was, inadvertently, describing a certain type of proximity to poverty as a luxury ― a “privilege” that’s rooted in witnessing the results of others’ deprivation.
Albom’s philanthropy has surely brought good into the world, and it would surely be better if more of us tried to give generously of our time and resources. But as the planet and various economies around it break down under the ravages of capitalism, it grows more and more alarming that we laud charity as an estimable hobby of the over-resourced, rather than insisting on equal distribution and true solidarity with the under-resourced. As hard as he strains to show us an egalitarian vision of human virtue, he can’t seem to quite see past his affection for a world in which his vision, his voice, his control can set the terms. The best gift he can offer the rest of us, in eternity, is the prospect of also being able to view others as cherished toys.
The shoehorning of paradise, and altruism itself, into these individualistic, capitalistic templates of satisfaction is a criminal failure of moral imagination. They misdirect our attention, away from true communal action and toward a tidy set of good behaviors that can comfortably coexist with a society that is, on a macro level, unconscionably inhumane. No attention is paid to the justice or injustice of military actions abroad or the vampiric costs of the health care system; instead, it seems that if we all run around saving each other from hot-air balloon crashes, everything will basically be okay.
A bunch of people doing just enough good to make up for the damage they inflicted on others does not a heaven make ― it’s resumé-building on the way to the apocalypse. If we want to forge a path to a better world, Albom’s smarm contingent won’t show the way. We’ll have to get a bit more radical.