'First Phone Call From Heaven': Mitch Albom milks the life-after-death thing


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"The end is not the end" is one of the haunting messages sent from a dead relative to a live person in Coldwater, Mich., in Mitch Albom's latest novel, "The First Phone Call From Heaven."

I'd like to believe it's true. Who wouldn't? Even Woody Allen, a noted skeptic, would prefer it to be the truth. At least that's what his character said in "Hannah and Her Sisters."


"THE FIRST PHONE CALL FROM HEAVEN"
By Mitch Albom
Harper ($24.99).

Before my mother died a few years ago, we agreed that she would somehow say hello to me from the great beyond. Turns out Mom is a slacker. Several years have passed -- so far no mommy miracles.

Of course you've heard of Mitch Albom, the Detroit sportswriter who branched out into life, and after-life, philosophy, in the wildly popular best-seller "Tuesdays With Morrie," about time spent with a deeply philosophical former college professor of Mr. Albom's while he was in the hospital preparing to die.

Mr. Albom has since grabbed the mantle of life after death and run with it like one of the athletes he covers -- like Jacoby Jones minus the Mike Tomlin obstruction. It could be the only reason Mom hasn't contacted me is we are from Kankakee, Ill., not Coldwater, Mich., where a half a dozen folks are getting weekly phone calls from dead relatives, dead friends and one guy who wanted to guilt-trip his old buddy for ratting on him, which he blamed for sending him into a death spiral.

The weekly phone calls are discovered by a local TV news reporter. Although she is tired of covering swap-meets and eager to get her career to the next level, she has misgivings when her ratings-hungry news director pushes her to jump on the story. Exploiting the insanity of nutballs is no way to become a TV news star, she thinks.

But after she does her first story on the alleged dead-sister-to-live-sister exchange, it takes off on the Internet like Jacoby Jones ... wait, I used that analogy.

Then there's the frequently drunken Air Force pilot, who was asked to fly an Air Force plane from the East Coast to the West Coast, who has a wife in Coldwater he hardly ever sees. He agrees to a last-minute request to fly as an excuse to stop by Coldwater and be with his beloved and their son. (Spoiler alert: some plot points revealed here.)

He has a mysterious accident, ditches the plane and parachutes down to safety. His wife hurries to the scene, has a head-on car collision and goes to the great beyond. Confoundedly, she's the only dead relative who doesn't get on the horn to say howdy to her Coldwater peeps.

Then, Fly Boy spends a few months in jail because it was discovered he'd been drinking the night of the flight, an irrelevant point in terms of the accident but a violation of Air Force rules nonetheless. The pilot plays detective to try to uncover what he thinks is a massive hoax.

Then there are the local clergymen, who want to believe but have little faith, at least initially, that it's real. There are a few interesting turns. The TV reporter ends up becoming inappropriately close to the sister whose sister calls from beyond. The police chief gets calls from his dead son but doesn't tell his ex-wife, even after she tells him she's getting calls, because he's flipping out and can't figure out the responsible thing to do.

The book's ending is interesting in that the author, who wants you to believe in life after death, exposes a plot twist that raises significant doubt. FYI, Alexander Graham Bell makes several cameos. Don't ask.

It is a slightly cheesy but somewhat interesting read, if you like that sort of thing. If she were still alive, Mom would want to see it made into a Hallmark Channel movie, starring Angela Lansbury, Dick Van Dyke, Andy Griffith and Julia Roberts (Mom liked "Pretty Woman" ... go figure), preferably around Christmastime.

Meantime, I'm still waiting for my first phone call from heaven. Yoo-hoo?

John McIntire is a radio and TV talk show host and comedian in Pittsburgh (johnmcintire@comcast.net).


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