by Michael Stuart
296 pages, iUniverse
Review by Marie Mundaca
Everyone has an idea of what heaven might be like—bright blue with fluffy clouds, lightning speed conversations with famous people, and lots of chocolate. But few people would include school and jobs. In Michael Stuart’s I Am The Angel, heaven is as pimped out as you’d like, but there’s still a lot of bureaucracy for the newly dead, like classes, with tests and everything. I would’ve hoped for a little less structure. In some ways, Stuart’s afterlife is a cross between The Lovely Bones and Beetlejuice, with its hellish waiting-room limbo. But don’t expect the sentimentality of Bones, -- the unnamed protagonist of I Am the Angel is fairly cantankerous, and his difficulty with his post-death assignment gives Stuart the opportunity to present philosophical discussions about the plight of humanity with a great degree of insight and humor. Readers will find Angel maybe a little sappy, but not at all predictable.
The hero of I Am the Angel dies as a result of getting hit by a car on Manhattan’s Upper West Side, and we immediately see where his priorities lie—the first thing he notices upon realizing that he’s dead is that his hair looks perfect. Apparently, when you die you get an idealized version of yourself to parade around it—pretty nice! And regular clothes too. No flowing white robes here, unless that’s what you want. But unfortunately for our hero, his obvious misanthropy is overlooked by the all knowing angel of death, Michael, and he immediately gets shuttled into “Angel School,” where he’ll learn to help out the living when bad hair days push them over the edge.
The protagonist has a slow and believable journey throughout the novel—his hatred and intolerance of people comes from how they constantly disappoint him with their bad decisions and bad manners. He struggles with the decision of whether or not to accept his assignments. Sure, he gets to go back to earth, but he has to deal with—eww--people. But an accidental overdose victim, Marley, along with his fellow students, show him that everyone has some good in them, and just about everyone deserves to get an angelic hand now and then.
Stuart spends quite a bit of time describing how things work in heaven. Besides the idealized self, you get to design your home and place it in the neighborhood of your choice, and you can also go to fantasy ballgames. It’s pretty swanky. But Stuart’s descriptions and side trips don’t get in the way of the real story, which is the hero’s journey from regular ol’ dead person to angel.
The protagonist starts out with general distain for humanity, and some of his fellow students. As he gets to know people a little better, his hatred tempers a bit—he is obviously a man who can hate on a large scale, but is able to find a little good in the people he actually meets. But when he attends his own funeral, his anger and disappointment are palpable as he notes the absence of his former fiancé and the presence of people he doesn’t even know whom he suspects may be business associates of his parents. He writes. “Who the hell were they to turn my death into a networking opportunity? Didn’t they have expensed business lunches where they could spew their sycophantic dialogue to dear old mom and dad?” He bemoans the lack of heart-felt eulogies, and people talking about the weather instead of about him. And who can blame him? Hopefully we really don’t get to attend our own funerals—I’m sure we would find them equally appalling.
Despite the fact that this book takes place in a fairly traditional version of a Judeo-Christian heaven, the archangels tend towards a very liberal interpretation of the Bible. Readers shouldn’t be expecting any evangelizing here. In fact, it’s quite the opposite. At one point archangel Michael says, “We find it very distressing when someone imposes his interpretation of the Bible onto someone else. It’s the same as forcing your personal values onto others. This mocks the very idea of both free will and the individualist nature with which God created humans.”
Stuart missed some opportunities to explore the protagonist’s misanthropy and his relationship with his ex-fiancé isn’t as fleshed out as it should be. But these minor flaws don’t detract from this sweet and enjoyable novel.