There's no kind of anguished desperation that feels quite like the desire to communicate with loved ones who we've lost. It can turn even the most rational person into a believer in the supernatural — to the bereaved, even if there's just a small chance of connecting with a dead friend or family member, isn't it worth the three dollars for the first minute and 99 cents for each additional minute?
The desire to know where, if anywhere, the ones we've lost go after they die is at the heart of Thomas Pierce's enchanting debut novel, The Afterlives. Like his previous book, the short story collection Hall of Small Mammals, it's richly imaginative, quirky but not twee, and the work of an author who's determined to find the surreal behind the ordinary.
The Afterlives follows Jim Byrd, a North Carolina loan officer who, at the age of 33, suffers a sudden cardiac arrest and dies for a few minutes. He's surprised, and maybe a little disappointed, by the lack of a dramatic near-death (well, actual-death) experience: "I saw nothing. No lights, no tunnels, no angels. I was just gone. I don't remember anything."
When the owner of a Mexican restaurant calls Jim's bank to apply for a loan, he decides to check the eatery out. It's there that he encounters two people who will change his life: Annie, his high school girlfriend, with whom he quickly becomes infatuated, and the restaurant's owner, who tells Jim that the place might be haunted.
Jim resumes his relationship with Annie, a widow and single mother to a 13-year-old girl with ambitions of becoming a rock star. Annie turns him on to the Church of Search, a vaguely New Age-y congregation with "no discernible creeds, no tenets, no specific set of beliefs," which he considers a welcome change from his Protestant upbringing, in which he was encouraged to believe that "Heaven was a sparkling, glistening place, populated with voluptuous, gender-neutral angels and boisterous choirs singing songs so sweet your ears wept tears of joy."
He also starts to investigate the possibly haunted restaurant, learning that the structure used to be a house that partially burned in 1932, killing one of its residents. His search leads him to Sally Zinker, an oddball physicist who also investigated the building, and whom Jim can't quite bring himself to trust: "Sometimes I doubted Sally Zinker even existed. She was a character in a movie or an elaborate video game. She was an advertising campaign. She was a conspiracy theory website given skin and bones."
There's a lot going on in The Afterlives, but that's not a bad thing — Pierce's pacing is excellent, and the reader never feels overwhelmed by the increasingly bizarre events in the novel. (One such event is the flood of "grammers" — realistic holograms of people that start flooding the town, to the consternation of the elderly residents who are creeped out by the newcomers.) It helps that Pierce keeps a straight face throughout the book; he has a talent for treating the otherworldly as matter-of-fact.
That's important, as the novel focuses heavily on Jim's adjustment to returning to a strange world after his cardiac arrest. "[I]n the months after my surgery, the world was making less and less sense to me, generally," he muses at one point. "Why did the dentist want to drill holes in my molars and fill the holes with a glass composite? What was the point of a labradoodle? Sometimes I got the feeling I'd been brought back to life on the wrong planet."
Pierce also has a gift for memorable and realistic characters. Particularly rich are Jim's parents — his father is skeptical of religion and has an abiding interest in the paranormal; his mother is a fundamentalist Christian. It's notable that Pierce writes about characters with wildly differing spiritual beliefs and treats them all with respect — while some authors would be tempted to make a punchline out of the devout, Pierce never does; he has a nuanced understanding of why people believe what they do, even if it seems odd to others.
The Afterlives is an admirably straight-faced novel, and Pierce writes as if he's allergic to the snide, the ironic and the pseudo-intellectual. It's a deeply generous, compassionate book that asks its readers to open their hearts and treat one another with understanding, even as the world grows more complicated, and more unknowable, every day.