In this novel of the afterlife, an average Joe gets the chance to make things right with three figures from his past—and then things get strange.
As this unusual novel begins, Henry Ford (not the famous one) has just died of stomach cancer. Now that he’s dead, he begins considering his life, because—like his high school nickname, “Edsel”—this Ford failed to deliver. Although he succeeded in not repeating his alcoholic father’s worst sins, such as spousal abuse, he resembled his dad, Charlie, in other ways: by taking over his insurance-sales business, neglecting his own family, and drinking too much. Henry explores the afterlife in Purgatory and has visions that include mystifying numbers, symbols, and his mother telling him to avoid his father’s fate—the “second death” of banishment to hell. About one-third of the way through the novel, the narration abruptly shifts from first to third person as Henry meets Billy, the “Piano Man”; Henry remembers seeing him play in a nightclub in Pensacola, where he used to vacation. Billy explains that Henry can request to see three people from his life, with whom he hopes to make things right. The novel tells a not-unexpected story of redemption involving Henry’s relationships with wife, son, and daughter—but once it reaches that destination, it goes wildly off-road. Charlie gives Billy the second death, explaining that the Devil wants the Piano Man for his band; Henry is invited to celebrate Billy’s lost soul at an extravagant rock opera/wake in which Satan is the headliner; and Charlie reveals a plan to help his son escape hell via a deal with the King of Thieves.
In his debut novel, Devon keeps up a colorful patter with frequent references to songs, movies, and other aspects of popular culture. Although Henry calls himself “ordinary,” he’s extraordinarily well-informed, making references to Buddhism’s Bodhi Tree, for example, or James Joyce’s Ulysses in this passage about his father: “Obscure and obscene, and born on a day in 1904 when the Joyce fella set his Dublin, novel….you see nothing but the dark night of a rotten soul entering the pale moon light to a whiter shade of hate.” At the same time, there’s nothing highbrow about how Henry’s daughter Elizabeth learns to love music—from hearing Elton John’s 1997 performance of “Candle in the Wind” at Princess Diana’s funeral. Some of the novel’s unexpected developments are fascinating, particularly the rock opera; Satan’s introduction, for instance, is rich with impresario cadences: “I bring you the long tongue liar, the midnight rider, the rambler, the gambler, the back biter! The one and only, the first victim that rose to be the King of Babylon, Lucifer the beautiful morning star, your deal maker, the one who knows your name, the Serpent Shaitan!” Although the progress of Henry’s soul becomes a little hard to follow in this heady atmosphere, the story somehow still manages to hang together.
Entertaining, thought-provoking, and original.