In Schulte’s debut novel, a dying man shares lessons about faith and life with his grandson.
The story begins in the hospice room of a wise old man who’s accepted his impending death. When an attendant says that they want to make his space more “cheery and comfortable,” he merely responds, “Bah. One should spend his last days in reflection, not pleasure. We should embrace the end, not avoid it.” When his grandson, Kevin, comes to visit, he tells him how his own life was powerfully transformed by embracing Christianity. He also gives Kevin a set of numbered notebooks in a briefcase. In each, Kevin finds a single story. At first, he believes the books to be journals, but he quickly realizes that the main character of the first tale—a man who becomes consumed by greed—doesn’t resemble his grandfather at all. “No, it never happened,” the old man explains. “But…I imagined how my life might go.” Kevin reads the remaining tales in his grandparent’s presence, and each introduces a new alter ego and addresses a different theme: “Wealth,” “Career,” “Pleasure,” “Shame,” “Family,” and others. His grandfather takes on the personae of a lonely prisoner in isolation, a hotshot businessman who loses all his material possessions, and even a young man who’s committed murder; the stories aren’t based on real events, but they do draw on lessons that the elderly man learned throughout his life. Readers may find that the novel’s central conceit—stories of roads not taken—offers an intriguing variation on the idea of a deathbed confession, but in practice, the stories tend to blur together. They rush to drive home lessons about faith, and several (such as “Wealth,” “Career,” and “Pleasure”) deal with similar themes that might have been more powerful if they were presented in a single story. There are standout chapters, however; “Shame,” for example, delivers a truly moving depiction of schoolyard bullying, and “Family” arrives at a unique and unexpected moral: “Family is important but not worth dedicating one’s life to.”
A linked set of modern parables, some more successful than others.