A schlub spends many lives figuring out where he went wrong in this lightweight reincarnation adventure.
Manus, a crass, slightly bigoted 41-year-old CPA, has a great relationship with his Corvette, but almost none with his wife and kids. When he’s killed in a collision with a Sikh ice-cream-truck driver, he finds himself adrift in the afterlife with his wisecracking great-grandmother, Oma, assigned as his “spirit sherpa” to guide him toward enlightenment. She might also be an ancient Hun warrior. Manus’ spiritual curriculum requires him to be reborn as a series of characters, including a Polish Jew packed off to Auschwitz in a cattle car, an African-American ex-con trying to spruce up an inner-city park, and a teenage Australian girl out for a glorious day’s surfing. In each scene, a life lesson is learned (love God, love your community, love the waves), after which a swift demise (shot by Nazi, stabbed by punk, chomped by shark) sends Manus’s spirit on to a new vessel. In between incarnations, Manus and Oma hang out on the Other Side, a paradise where he receives personal-growth tutorials from Albert Einstein, Elvis and Wilt Chamberlain. The author pens a half-serious, half-farcical picaresque that’s a kaleidoscope of well-observed bits of history, sketchy philosophical musings and jokey supernatural whimsy. There are a few funny vignettes, including a raucous marital spat between Manus and his widow conducted through a put-upon psychic medium. There are also many draggy passages of New Age catechism: “You learn from each life, you evolve, becom[ing] more attuned with the universal force,” says an “amorphous spirit.” The novel’s center lies in Manus’ experiences of moral crises in lives unfamiliar to him; the most substantial of these, like the story of an Iraqi romance that crosses hostile sectarian boundaries, achieve real emotional depth. Unfortunately, the ongoing reincarnation device ushers Manus on so glibly that the various characters’ life-and-death traumas—and the lessons they are meant to impart—lose their dramatic force.
An often entertaining but usually uninvolving spirit-quest fantasy.