Pick the least likely place to start life over, and that’s where a Jill McCorkle story begins. She has always had an eye for those moments when to go forward means to take a leap into the unknown, and in books like Ferris Beach, Creatures of Habit and Carolina Moon, she’s proved that the darker the fun and more outrageous the circumstances, the better.
McCorkle’s unknown, though, is never a lonely place. Whenever her characters run away from home, wake up from a long-cherished illusion or finally turn to face themselves, they invariably find themselves in good company.
And since nothing says fresh start and a healthy support system like a bunch of bickering 80-year-olds still working out the kinks in their lives, McCorkle sets her first novel in 17 years at the Pine Haven Continuing Care retirement community in small-town Fulton, NC.
Life After Life (Algonquin Books, $24.95) unfolds over a brief, 24-hour period, during which each character comes forward to introduce themselves: Joanna, a hospice worker dedicated to recording the last days and hours of the dying. Sadie, a former grade-school teacher who believes everyone is eight years old at heart. The irascible Stanley, a retired lawyer feigning dementia —and a pro wrestler’s persona — to keep his middle-aged son at arm’s length. And Rachel, a widow who has reluctantly come South to be nearer the man she secretly loved for 40 years.
Their memories, conversations, squabbles and confessions prove that life is anything but over at Pine Haven. The golden years of these oldsters brim with loose ends, struggles to make peace with adult children, nostalgia, regrets over marriages and broken promises and hearts.
Not everyone we meet at Pine Haven lives there. It’s a welcome escape for C.J., a pierced, tattooed single mom and beautician, from her nasty reputation in town. Twelve-year-old Amanda makes it her home away from the bitter fights between her parents, Ben, a would-be lawyer turned amateur magician, and his dissatisfied, cheating wife Kendra.
A missing dog, several secret love affairs and a dramatic series of disappearances and revelations — real and metaphorical — tie the characters together in unexpected ways.
Joanna, the principal voice of Life After Life, is a woman whose string of bad marriages brought her to attempted suicide. In Luke, a gay man dying of AIDS, she found her spiritual mentor and a new purpose: to preserve life after life. “Seek out … the lost and forgotten,” he urged. “Keep us close. Keep us alive. Don’t ever let us disappear.”
Since then, Joanna sits at the bedsides of the dying, keeping her promise in the notebook entries found at the end of each chapter: “She writes what she knows: their names and birthplaces and favorite things,” and asks: “What is your first memory? Your favorite time of day or holiday or teacher or article of clothing? How would you describe your marriage? Was there something you learned in your life that surprised you?”
The resulting notes on each person she ushers out — “he loved the ocean and fishing and hot dogs” — document their final days. Like a set of nesting dolls, Joanna’s book and other records are smaller versions of the larger novel.
C.J., too, keeps a journal she calls “Pandora’s Box” — a secret accounting that could potentially ruin others as they have ruined her. Marge, wife of the late Judge Walker, keeps a “murder and crime scrapbook.” Sadie creates collages, inserting pictures of the residents into scenes that approximate the exotic travels they never took and that dream job they always wanted.
But illusions can’t paper over every heartache, secrets can be deadly, and some people never learn how to ask for help.
“Those are the ones who will need you the most,” Luke tells Joanna. “Always they are waiting for something: a face, a word, an apology, permission, a touch.” He encourages her to be “a rope passer” rather than stand by and wait to be rescued.
McCorkle says the inspiration for the book originated with the deaths of her grandmother and father, and the
aftermath of loss: “I dreamed of my dad for a whole year after he died,” she writes in an author note. “And in the dream he would often say to me, I’m not dead.”
She deftly orchestrates these interlocking layers of consciousness throughout the book, combining straightforward narrative, Joanna’s observations, and lyrical, impressionistic glimpses of the last moments of the dying:
“The light on the lake skips and shimmers like glass he can walk over, slick cool shiny glass, and his body tingles and moves without him, slick and cool and there is barking and singing and lapping, lapping, lapping, waves on the beach…”
Leave it to McCorkle to plumb the ultimate new beginning in this down-home, Southern-style Book of the Dead. Illuminating, reassuring, and enlarging our understanding of the crossing from this world to the next, her novel sings with the mystical, the magical and the fragility of this thing called life.