“Even faithful Christians doubt that there really is a kingdom of heaven. I want all of My doubting children to believe My kingdom is real. This will lead them to be more faithful, obedient and pure of heart so that they can enter My kingdom.”
— Jesus Christ, as quoted by Choo Thomas in Heaven is So Real!
In 1943, a 20-year old Army private named George G. Ritchie Jr. died of pneumonia in a military hospital. “No evidence of respiration or cardiac impulse,” declared a medical officer in his notarized statement, unaware that Ritchie’s befuddled spirit was wandering the hospital that very moment. To Ritchie’s confusion, no one could see or hear him, he passed through everything he tried to touch, and then he saw his own body with a sheet pulled over its lifeless head.
A man made of light entered the room and introduced himself as the son of God, though he needed no introduction. Jesus took Ritchie on a tour through various realms of the afterlife: a hell on Earth in which alcoholic souls possessed the bodies of passed-out drunks for a quick fix, where guilt-ridden souls of suicides were trapped in a loop of apologizing to the ones they hurt, and crowds of spirits vainly attempted to satisfy endless, torturous cravings; a moderately happy purgatory for scientists who were blind to Jesus because they had their noses too deep in science books; and finally, the glorious city of heaven where only those who were filled with love called home. Then Ritchie awoke to find himself under a sheet – alive and with a mission to tell the world what he had seen.
Ritchie’s peek into the afterlife first entered the public record in 1963. In her introduction to Ritchie’s heaven memoir Return from Tomorrow, Elizabeth Sherrill recounts interviewing Ritchie for a series in Guideposts magazine called “Life After Death.” “By then the whole subject of threshold experiences – people who, near death, believed they’d had a glimpse of another world – was very much in the air,” she wrote. In 1978, she turned Ritchie’s spiritual adventure into a book called Return from Tomorrow. A 30th anniversary edition followed in 2007.
For the past decade, perhaps in unintentional homage to George G. Ritchie Jr., more and more people have been dying, visiting heaven, and returning to write about it. Christian author Tim Challies dismisses this relatively new genre as “heaven tourism” and derides the stories as “paganism in the guise of Christianity,” because true Christians shouldn’t need first-hand testimony to believe in heaven. Many Christians agree – a few to the point of writing unpopular ebooks criticizing specific heavenlogues for contradicting scripture, like Heaven Is For Real: The Book Isn’t (2011) by D. Eric Williams and A Christian Rebuttal to Marvin J. Besteman’s My Journey to Heaven (2012) by Robert Alan King. But these books are terribly rated and mostly garner comments like this: “Dear Mr. Eric Williams, I did not and I do not plan on reading your disgusting book. I hope you rot and burn in hell. That is all. Love, an angel.” Inevitably, then, there are rebuttals to the rebuttals, such as A (COMPREHENSIVE) CHRISTIAN REBUTTAL TO THE [CULT] “CHRISTIAN” REBUTTAL TO DR. EBEN ALEXANDER’S “PROOF OF HEAVEN” by Robert Alan King (2013), by “AHS”.
Then there are those (like myself) who don’t trust these heaven books because the existence of a blissful, supernatural plane of existence for dead people who played by the rules seems less plausible an explanation for flights through gold-plated cities than does trauma-induced hallucinations. Besides, a lot of people have near death experiences and see nothing, so why interpret visits into heaven as proof of an afterlife but not treat visits into nothing as proof of a post-life void?
Yet when I started hearing about people who had gone to heaven and looked around before coming back, and that one of them claimed to see Jesus astride a rainbow-colored horse, I was intrigued. It was Colton Burpo who made the audacious claim that Jesus’s ride resembles Starlite from Rainbow Brite, and he became my entry point into the heaven-and-back phenomenon. Now a teen, Colton’s tales of going to heaven during an appendectomy at the age of 3 years and 10 months formed the basis of the New York Times best seller Heaven is For Real (2010). His father Todd wrote the book with pro writer Lynn Vincent, and it was such a hit that a cinematic adaptation starring Greg Kinnear as Todd Burpo is set for release in 2014. This wild success is impressive but not anomalous. Eban Alexander’s Proof of Heaven (2012) and Don Piper’s 90 Minutes in Heaven (2004) have also spent time on the New York Times nonfiction best seller list. The Amazon reviews of such books are mostly raves from believers, and the authors have no trouble fielding softball questions from interviewers who seem eager to accept their stories. Strange as it may seem to the sectarian and secular skeptics, people read and enjoy these books as factual depictions of the afterlife, and it’s only when authors admit their heaven stories are fake (I Went to Heaven and I Saw God, 2012, by Ben Brocard) or offer a mere fleeting, mysterious glimpse of the afterlife (Waking up in Heaven, 2013, by Crystal McVea) that heaven-hungry readers turn on these tourguides to heaven.
Do you believe that George G. Ritchie and Colton Burpo went to heaven before returning to earth? And if so, would it surprise you to hear that Ritchie didn’t spot Jesus on a rainbow horse, and that Colton didn’t see alcoholic souls possessing passed-out drunks, or a purgatory for scientists? One of the major problems with the heaven-and-back literature, at least for those looking to it for inspiration and hope, is that none of the people who have been there agree about what it’s like. These authors aren’t publicly disputing each other’s testimonials – which is too bad, because that would make for great daytime talk show fodder – but if you read more than one of the books, the discrepancies are hard to miss. Of course if heaven is as vast and magical as it would have to be to entertain an ever-growing immortal population, you can’t expect every post-life travelogue to look identical. But when these reports contradict each other in fundamental ways, it raises obvious questions about their veracity. For those who want to believe that any of these authors went to heaven, you pretty much have to read only one of the books and swear by that one, or be highly skilled at ignoring inconsistencies.
To be fair, there is some overlap between the 10 or so heaven-and-back books I’ve read or skimmed (most of the books contain a lot of earthbound filler that I didn’t mind missing). All of them said that heaven is an exceptionally bright place, and that this is mostly due to the luminescence of God and Jesus. This is why most testimonials agree that there is no real night in heaven, though even here there is some discord. Oden Hetrick (Inside the Gates of Heaven) says that he saw sunsets in heaven and a “gloaming period” when heaven dims and the hustle and bustle slows, while the other authors described a constant brightness reminiscent of Winston’s prison cell in 1984 or Christmas in Antarctica forever.
Most of these books do make one thing pretty clear: if you plan on going to heaven, you better be prepared to worship God and Jesus all the time, because that’s the main pastime there. One book breaks ranks on this point, thank God – Proof of Heaven by Eben Alexander. Alexander wasn’t religious before going to heaven, and perhaps that’s why his heaven avoided most of the Sunday school clichés that devout Christian authors encounter in the great beyond. Alexander didn’t see Jesus or any other Biblical figures, no angels hassled him to join a choir, and he could only talk to his non-personified God through an orb of light serving as interpreter – all of which seems to rule out dutiful worship as an expected activity for frittering away the afterlife. Technically you could sing glorious praise to that orb, but you’d probably feel a little weird about it.
Just about every visitor to heaven says that the time they spent there was more real than anything they ever experienced on earth. Typically they illustrate this through an analogy. In Waking up in Heaven, Crystal McVea wrote, “What I experienced in heaven was so real and so lucid and so utterly intense, it made my experiences on Earth seem hazy and out of focus — as if heaven is the reality and life as we know it is just a dream.” Eben Alexander compares life on earth to a decent enough movie, and heaven to the moment when you step outside the theater into a wondrous summer afternoon and wonder why you squandered those hours inside. Mary Neal (To Heaven And Back, 2012) calls earth the analog cathode-ray-tube television to heaven’s digital HDTV. And the title of Choo Thomas’s heaven travelogue, Heaven is So Real! (2006), tells us where she stands.
And these books do at least help to resolve a paradox at the heart of Christian attitudes about the afterlife: if heaven is so great, why don’t all believers want to die as soon as possible? Well, the authors who have been to heaven do want to die – they all practically beg for death to save them from this mediocre dump that God threw together in a week, which puts them in the awkward position of having to explain to their friends and family that yes, they wish they weren’t here with them anymore. It seems then that religious people who cling to life either don’t believe in heaven as much as these authors do, or don’t fully appreciate just how wonderful heaven is. As Choo Thomas writes, “[The Lord] has shown me that many believers are, in reality, functional atheists — they don’t really believe there is a heaven.” This could explain the incredible popularity of these books amongst the God fearing, whom you might have thought needed no convincing.
Indeed, the premise behind this burgeoning genre is that religious faith is withering and God and Jesus must take drastic measures to bring us back into the fold. Everyone who comes back from heaven does so reluctantly, sometimes as an answer to prayers, but usually with divine orders to tell the world what they saw, so that we might truly believe again. Curiously, though, this marketing strategy is all over the place. For instance, Jesus asked Choo Thomas to tell the world everything she witnessed in heaven, but God asked Alex Malarkey (The Boy Who Came Back From Heaven, 2010) to withhold most of the details. Worse, God supposedly wants heaven’s visitors to bolster our collective faith, but manages to send everyone back with totally conflicting stories, which makes them easier to dismiss as intricate fantasies, wishful thinking or even just lies.
Let’s consider just a few of the major disagreements.
Is it true about Saint Peter and the pearly gates?
The stereotypical image of heaven’s entrance is of pearly gates, with Saint Peter as the bouncer checking names off a list, but none of the heaven testimonials I read found this to be entirely true.
Not that they could agree on what was true.
Of heaven’s gate, Marvin Besteman (My Journey to Heaven, 2012), wrote, “And no, I don’t remember it as being ‘pearly.’” Instead, it was a mahogany wood gate. Beyond that was a glass gate that kept Marvin from entering heaven proper, while allowing him a glimpse inside as Saint Peter parlayed with God over whether it was Besteman’s time or not – making half of the stereotype correct. The testimony of Oden Hetrick, however, suggests the reverse is true. That Saint Peter greets new arrivals “is not quite right” Hetrick says, because it’s angels who call us in, but the gates to heaven are in fact pearly: “The gates are like pearl because they are concentrated white light.”
Colton Burpo told his father Todd that heaven’s gates were made of gold but had pearls on them. Alex Malarkey said the gate was white and “looks like it has scales like a fish.” And Ian McCormack (A Glimpse of Eternity, 2008) didn’t notice a gate at all. For him, God acted as a physical door to heaven, stepping aside to reveal a tunnel into a garden-like kingdom.
What colors are in heaven?
Everyone who goes to heaven agrees that it’s colorful enough to rival an acid trip. Marvin Besteman summed it up best:
The thing about the colors in heaven is that they are all shot through with a brightness, a luster that seems to incorporate the sun’s rays, the moon’s beams, a fire’s flicker, and a star’s glitter, stirred together by a master lighting director and splashed out over the canopy we will spend eternity watching.
In general, whenever heaven incorporates some familiar aspect of life on earth, it’s safe to say that heaven’s version will crank it up to 11. So when an interviewer asked Colton Burpo if heaven was in color or in black and white, his response – “It’s all the colors we have here on earth. And then some more” – hardly seemed controversial.
But Colton’s view has a critic. While Oden Hetrick also enjoyed heaven’s dazzling color scheme, he didn’t notice new colors. In fact, in an interview, he claimed heaven is even missing a color. The color you won’t find in heaven? Orange:
So there are five major colors in heaven; gold, red, purple…blue and green. You might say well, where’s orange? I don’t know except orange is the color of some flesh, maybe that’s why that color is omitted. But then gold is very close to that. …The sky color is usually [gold].
Well, actually, heaven has a blue-black sky with pinkish clouds – at least according to Eben Alexander.
What are we like in heaven?
It thrills Fox News and 700 Club interviewers when Colton Burpo informs them that in heaven, everyone is in their late 20s or early 30s. “I gotta say I love that part!” is the sort of comment this inspires. And not to worry if you fall off a cliff during your most awkward pimply teenage phase: Colton says that if you die young, you will age until you reach your late 20s or 30s – and this is true even if you die as a fetus. (Why some people age a little more than others is not clear.)
But not everyone returned with such crowd-pleasing news. Marvin Besteman saw “children and grown-ups of all ages.” Saint Peter, for instance, was around 55. And in 90 Minutes in Heaven, Don Piper notes that when he first got to heaven, he saw people of a “wide variety of ages — old and young and every age in between.” In later interviews, however, Piper referred to everyone in heaven as “ageless,” which concurs with Mary Neal, who prefers “timeless.”
No humans have wings in heaven, according to Oden Hetrick, but we can float, move by the power of thought or hitch a ride in a flying chariot that God’s will powers and controls.
Unless Colton Burpo is right, and everyone in heaven has wings except for Jesus.
How do we learn in heaven?
Heaven returnees are split over how we absorb new information in the great beyond. Most of the authors I’ve read say we communicate telepathically and learn everything in heaven through osmosis, but a few say that rote learning is enforced. Eben Alexander speaks for the osmosis side:
Thoughts entered me directly…and as I received them I was able to instantly and effortlessly understand concepts that would have taken me years to fully grasp in my earthly life…The knowledge given me was not “taught” in the way that a history lesson or math theorem would be. Insights happened directly, rather than needing to be coaxed and absorbed. Knowledge was stored without memorization, instantly and for good.
By “for good,” he meant while you’re in heaven – Alexander forgot much of what he learned when he returned to earth, just as so many of us forget math and chemistry the second we graduate high school. Crystal McVea, Don Piper, and Marvin Besteman corroborate this Lawnmower Man–esqe approach to learning, but Oden Hetrick and Colton Burpo argue that learning in heaven harkens back to the 19th century Prussian model. Hetrick said there are angel-led education sessions in the Temple of Instruction, and Colton said Jesus taught classes and assigned homework.
How many evil heads does Satan have?
Even though neither went to hell, Colton Burpo and Alexander Malarkey both saw Satan. In Heaven is For Real, Colton wouldn’t describe Satan, either because the memory paralyzed him with fear or he hadn’t concocted a convincing description at that point. But in an interview with 100 Huntley Street, Todd Burpo said Colton eventually claimed Satan had “seven heads and ten crowns,” which would make him identical to “the beast from the sea” in Revelations. This gave Todd’s scripture-literate interviewer a perplexed pause, and it doesn’t jibe with the three-headed, moldy-bodied, screechy-voiced Satan that Malarkey saw, so who is the real “Great Deceiver” here?
Is there sex in heaven?
Of all the afterlife observations to reach a perfect consensus, of course it would be this one: there is no sex in heaven. Now it’s not that most of the visitors to heaven specifically denied the existence of sex there – they just failed to mention sex at all. So let’s be optimistic for a moment. Absence of evidence of sex in heaven is not evidence of the absence of sex in heaven. It may simply be that you don’t get to see or have sex in heaven your first few hours there. Or maybe you do, and heaven’s returned visitors are smart enough to leave that part out, given that most of them are married or below the age of consent.
Unfortunately, Oden Hetrick does directly deny us sex as spirits, explaining that we don’t have reproductive organs because there is no flesh and blood in heaven. Hey, that doesn’t stop food consumption in heaven – Jesus even kills and cooks a fish for Choo Thomas. Nevertheless, the lack of sex in heaven makes some sense. If we could reproduce in heaven, everyone born there would get to skip the pains and disappointments of life on earth all together, which hardly seems fair. Beyond that, sex is arguably an awkward redundancy in a place where everyone already experiences eternal bliss and supernatural interconnectedness.
So there may not be sex in heaven, but according to Hetrick, there is videotape – one of our pastimes in heaven will be watching a video recording of our lives. “Now that’s enough to make somebody behave isn’t it?” Hetrick winked, before clarifying that when Jesus forgives our sins, he edits those sins from our life’s videotape. So be sure to have a lot of Jesus-sanctioned sex within the bonds of marriage while you can, since re-watching hardcore scenes from your honeymoon over and over is the closest you’ll get to sex in the afterlife.
Can you see God’s face in heaven?
To briefly paraphrase everyone…
Alexander Malarkey: No, you can only see up to God’s neck.
Oden Hetrick: Yes, he looks like a handsome young man with a bright, shiny face.
Ian McCormack: No. You’ll die if you do.
Don Piper: Perhaps, but you can’t return to earth if you do.
Choo Thomas: If by God you mean Jesus, then no. You can however see that Jesus has a large frame and wavy hair parted in the middle.
Crystal McVea: No, and God doesn’t have a human form either.
Colton Burpo: Yes. God looks like a larger version of the angel Gabriel. The Holy Spirit is “kind of blue,” by the way.
Eben Alexander: Not unless you count the orb of light.
So where do all of these contradictions leave us?
One possible conclusion is that none of these people actually went to heaven. Call this the Hitchens/Harris/Challies view. It certainly has an intuitive appeal. For one thing, if they’re all sure they went to heaven, and they know that for instance you can or cannot see God’s face, why aren’t they criticizing the obvious frauds who either couldn’t or could? That they don’t all ferociously debate each other implies insecurities about their own visions.
Another possibility is that only one of them went to heaven, but then who to believe? My money would be on either Eben Alexander or Crystal McVea. Both of them were skeptics before going to heaven, which makes them somehow more credible than a professional reverend like Oden Hetrick or the pastor’s son Colton Burpo who recounts his trip to heaven with the cold affectless demeanor of a psychopath. Plus, of all the heavens described in these books, Alexander’s is the only one that doesn’t sound like a climate-controlled version of hell. And McVea’s life story of childhood abuse, unhappy relationships, familial loss, and feeling worthless is so tragic and compelling – and her attitude through it all so admirably upbeat – that I like think of a divine being reminding her that she is loved.
Or it may be that there is no one definitive heaven because heaven is what each of us wants it to be. If the thought of singing praise until you’re hoarse in an blindingly bright, antiseptic gold-paved city for eternity makes you feel a little sick, maybe you’ll end up somewhere more dreamy and conceptual, like Eban Alexander’s afterlife.
But there is another possible explanation for these inconsistencies that would answer the skeptical Christian’s concern that these books undercut the primacy of faith. Maybe God shows every visitor different heavens and tells them to write about these conflicting characters, activities, and landscapes because he’s up to his old mysteriousness business. Does God want to hint to us that heaven is really real, while teasing our craving for evidence by sending us garbled, contradictory messages about what’s actually there – forcing us to rely on faith again after all?
Oh God, you sneaky devil you.
Is it my imagination, or do an inordinate number of writers die in motor vehicle accidents? Maybe I tend to notice these grisly deaths because I’m a writer, an avid reader of obituaries, and also a car lover with a deep fear of dying in a crash. But I’m convinced by years of accumulated empirical evidence that writers outnumber the percentage of, say, nurses or teachers or accountants who die in car and motorcycle accidents. (Similarly, an inordinate number of musicians seem to die in plane crashes, including the Big Bopper, John Denver, Buddy Holly, Otis Redding, Ritchie Valens and Ronnie Van Zant, to name a few.)
Why do so many writers die in motor vehicle mishaps? Are they reckless drivers? Prone to bad luck? Likely to indulge in risky behavior? I don’t pretend to know the answer(s), but I have noticed, sadly, that writers who die in crashes are frequently on the cusp of greatness or in the midst of some promising project; sometimes they’re at the peak of their careers. I offer this list in chronological order, aware it isn’t exhaustive. Feel free to add to it in the comments. Think of this as a living tribute to writers who left us too soon:
T.E. Lawrence (1888-1935) – Lawrence of Arabia, David Lean’s Oscar-winning 1962 movie, opens with the death of its subject. T.E. Lawrence (played by Peter O’Toole), the archaeologist/warrior who helped unite rival Arab tribes and defeat the Ottoman Empire during the First World War, was whizzing along a road in rural Dorset, England, astride his Brough Superior SS100 motorcycle on the afternoon of May 13, 1935. A dip in the road obscured Lawrence’s view of two boys on bicycles, and when he swerved to avoid them he lost control and pitched over the handlebars. Six days later he died from his injuries. He was 46.
Seven Pillars of Wisdom, Lawrence’s account of his experiences during the Great War, made him an international celebrity, though he called the book “a narrative of daily life, mean happenings, little people.” An inveterate letter writer, Lawrence also published his correspondence with Winston Churchill, George Bernard Shaw, Noel Coward, E.M. Forster and many others. He dreamed that victory on the desert battlefield would result in an autonomous Arab state, but negotiators at the Paris peace conference had very different ideas, prompting Lawrence to write bitterly, “Youth could win but had not learned to keep: and was pitiably weak against age. We stammered that we had worked for a new heaven on earth, and they thanked us kindly and made their peace.”
Seven Pillars of Wisdom still speaks to us today, as the U.S. fights two wars in the region during this convulsive Arab Spring. Lawrence could have been writing about Americans in Iraq when he wrote these words about his fellow British soldiers: “And we were casting them by thousands into the fire to the worst of deaths, not to win the war but that the corn and rice and oil of Mesopotamia might be ours.”
Nathanael West (1903-1940) – Nathanael West, born Nathan Weinstein, wrote just four short novels in his short life, but two of them – Miss Lonelyhearts and The Day of the Locust – are undisputed classics. After graduating from college he managed two New York hotels, where he allowed fellow aspiring writers to stay at reduced rates or free of charge, including Dashiell Hammett, Erskine Caldwell and James T. Farrell. When his first three novels – The Dream Life of Balso Snell (1931), Miss Lonelyhearts (1933) and A Cool Million (1934) – earned a total of $780, a demoralized West went to Hollywood to try his hand at screenwriting.
There he enjoyed his first success. He wrote scripts for westerns, B-movies and a few hits, then used his experiences in the trenches of the movie business to brilliant effect in his masterpiece, The Day of the Locust (1939), which satirizes the tissue of fakery wrapped around everything in Los Angeles, from its buildings to its people to the fantasies that pour out of its dream factories. The novel also paints a garish portrait of the alienated and violent dreamers who come to California for the sunshine and the citrus and the empty promise of a fresh start. West’s original title for the novel was, tellingly, The Cheated. It was eclipsed by John Steinbeck’s The Grapes of Wrath, which was a published a few weeks before it and went on to win the Pulitzer Prize, then was made into a hit movie. West wrote ruefully to his friend F. Scott Fitzgerald, “Sales: practically none.”
In April of 1940 West married Eileen McKenney. Eight months later, on Dec. 22, a day after Fitzgerald had died of a heart attack, West and McKenney were returning to their home in Los Angeles from a bird-hunting expedition in Mexico. Outside the farming town of El Centro, West, a notoriously bad driver, gunned his sparkling new Ford station wagon through a stop sign at high speed, smashing into a Pontiac driven by a poor migrant worker. West and McKenney were flung from the car and died of “skull fracture,” according to the coroner’s report.
Marion Meade, author of Lonelyhearts: The Screwball World of Nathanael West and Eileen McKenney, closes her book with what I think is a fitting eulogy: “Dead before middle age, Nat left behind no children, no literary reputation of importance, no fine obituary in the New York Times ensuring immortality, no celebrity eulogies, just four short novels, two of them unforgettable. When a writer lives only 37 years and ends up with very little reward, it might seem a waste, until you look at what he did. For Nathanael West, what he did seems enough.”
Margaret Mitchell (1900-1949) – Gone With the Wind, Margaret Mitchell’s only novel, was published in the summer of 1936. By the end of the year it had sold a million copies and David O. Selznick had bought the movie rights for the unthinkable sum of $50,000. Mitchell spent the rest of her life feeding and watering her cash cow, work that was not always a source of pleasure. Her New York Times obituary said the novel “might almost be labeled a Frankenstein that overwhelmed her,” adding, “She said one day, in a fit of exasperation as she left for a mountain hideaway from the throngs which besieged her by telephone, telegraph and in person, that she had determined never to write another word as long as she lived.”
She gave up fiction but continued to write letters, and her correspondence is filled with accounts of illnesses and accidents, boils and broken bones, collisions with furniture and cars. In fact, she claimed she started writing her novel because “I couldn’t walk for a couple of years.”
On the evening of Aug. 11, 1949, Mitchell and her husband John Marsh were about to cross Peachtree Street in downtown Atlanta on their way to see a movie. According to witnesses, Mitchell stepped into the street without looking – something she did frequently – and she was struck by a car driven by a drunk, off-duty taxi driver named Hugh Gravitt. Her skull and pelvis were fractured, and she died five days later without regaining consciousness.
F. Scott Fitzgerald, a writer whose familiarity with failure surely colored his opinion of Mitchell’s staggering success, said of Gone With the Wind, “I felt no contempt for it but only a certain pity for those who considered it the supreme achievement of the human mind.”
Albert Camus (1913-1960) – He had planned to take the train from Provence back to Paris. But at the last minute, the Nobel laureate Albert Camus accepted a ride from his publisher and friend, Michel Gallimard. On Jan. 4, 1960 near the town of Villeblevin, Gallimard lost control of his Facel Vega sports car on a wet stretch of road and slammed into a tree. Camus, 46, died instantly and Gallimard died a few days later. Gallimard’s wife and daughter were thrown clear of the mangled car. Both survived.
In the wreckage was a briefcase containing 144 handwritten pages – the first draft of early chapters of Camus’s most autobiographical novel, The First Man. It closely paralleled Camus’s youth in Algiers, where he grew up poor after his father was killed at the first battle of the Marne, when Albert was one year old. The novel was not published until 1994 because Camus’s daughter Catherine feared it would provide ammunition for the leftist French intellectuals who had turned against her father for daring to speak out against Soviet totalitarianism and for failing to support the Arab drive for independence in the country of his birth. Camus dedicated the unfinished novel to his illiterate mother – “To you who will never be able to read this book.” He once said that of all the many ways to die, dying in a car crash is the most absurd.
Randall Jarrell (1914-1965) – In his essay on Wallace Stevens, written when he was 37, the poet and critic Randall Jarrell wrote prophetically, “A good poet is someone who manages, in a lifetime of standing out in thunderstorms, to be struck by lightning five or six times… A man who is a good poet at forty may turn out to be a good poet at sixty; but he is more likely to have stopped writing poems.”
In the 1960s, as his 50th birthday approached, Jarrell’s poetic inspiration was in decline. While he didn’t stop writing poetry, he concentrated on criticism, translations and children’s books. He also sank into a depression that led him to slash his left wrist and arm in early 1965. The suicide attempt failed, and a month later his wife Mary committed him to a psychiatric hospital in Chapel Hill, N.C. He was there when his final book of poems, The Lost World, appeared to some savage reviews. In The Saturday Review, Paul Fussell wrote, “It is sad to report that Randall Jarrell’s new book… is disappointing. There is nothing to compare with the poems he was writing 20 years ago… (His style) has hardened into a monotonous mannerism, attended now too often with the mere chic of sentimental nostalgia and suburban pathos.”
Though stung, Jarrell returned to UNC-Greensboro in the fall, where he was a dedicated and revered teacher. In October he was back in Chapel Hill undergoing treatments for the wounds on his left arm. On the evening of Oct. 14, 1965, Jarrell was walking alongside the busy U.S. 15-501 bypass, toward oncoming traffic, about a mile and a half south of town. As a car approached, Jarrell stepped into its path. His head struck the windshield, punching a hole in the glass. He was knocked unconscious and died moments later from “cerebral concussion.” The driver, Graham Wallace Kimrey, told police at the scene, “As I approached he appeared to lunge out into the path of the car.” Kimrey was not charged.
Was it a suicide? A tragic accident? We’ll never know for sure. One thing we do know is that this brilliant critic, uneven poet and inspiring teacher died too young, at 51, the same age as his heroes Proust and Rilke.
Richard Farina (1937-1966) – There was a time when every young person with claims to being hip and literary absolutely had to possess a battered copy of Richard Farina’s only novel, that terrific blowtorch of a book called Been Down So Long It Looks Like Up To Me. Like a handful of other novels – Tropic of Cancer, On the Road, The Catcher in the Rye, Gravity’s Rainbow and Infinite Jest come immediately to mind – Farina’s creation was as much a generational badge as it was a book. Farina’s novel, which recounts the picaresque wanderings of Gnossos Pappadopoulis, was published in 1966, after Farina and his wife Mimi, Joan Baez’s sister, had become a successful folk-singing act. The best man at their wedding was Thomas Pynchon, who’d met Richard while they were students at Cornell.
On April 30, 1966, two days after the novel was published, there was a party in Carmel Valley, California, to celebrate Mimi’s 21st birthday. Richard decided to go for a spin on the back of another guest’s Harley-Davidson motorcycle. The driver entered an S-curve at excessive speed, lost control and tore through a barbed-wire fence. Farina died instantly, at the age of 29. Pynchon, who later dedicated Gravity’s Rainbow to Farina, said his friend’s novel comes on “like the Hallelujah Chorus done by 200 kazoo players with perfect pitch.”
Wallace Stegner (1909-1993) – For a writer who lived such a long and fruitful life – he was a teacher, environmentalist, decorated novelist and author of short stories, histories and biographies – Wallace Stegner does not enjoy the readership he deserves. “Generally students don’t read him here,” said Tobias Wolff, who was teaching at Stanford in 2009, the centennial of Stegner’s birth. “I wish they would.”
It was at Stanford that Stegner started the creative writing program and nurtured a whole galaxy of supernova talents, including Edward Abbey, Ernest Gaines, George V. Higgins, Ken Kesey, Gordon Lish, Larry McMurtry and Robert Stone. He won a Pulitzer Prize for fiction and a National Book Award but was ghettoized as “the dean of Western writers.” In a cruel irony, this writer who deplored “the stinks of human and automotive waste” was on his way to deliver a lecture in Santa Fe, N.M., on March 28, 1993, when he pulled his rental car into the path of a car bearing down on his left. The left side of Stegner’s car was crushed, and he suffered broken ribs and a broken collarbone. A heart attack and pneumonia followed, and he died in the hospital at the age of 84.
For all his love of the West, Stegner knew it was no Eden. He once told an interviewer: “The West is politically reactionary and exploitative: admit it. The West as a whole is guilty of inexplicable crimes against the land: admit that too. The West is rootless, culturally half-baked. So be it.”
Steve Allen (1921-2000) – Though best known as a television personality, musician, composer, actor and comedian, Steve Allen also wrote more than 50 books on a wide range of topics, including religion, media, the American educational system and showbiz personalities, plus poetry, plays and short stories. Lovers of Beat literature will always remember Allen for noodling on the piano while Jack Kerouac recited passages from On the Road on “The Steve Allen Show” in 1959.
On Oct. 30, 2000, Allen was driving to his son’s home in Encino, California, when his Lexus collided with an SUV that was being backed out of a driveway. Neither driver appeared to be injured in the fender bender, and they continued on their ways. After dinner at his son’s home, Allen said he was feeling tired and lay down for a nap. He never woke up. The original cause of death was believed to be a heart attack, but a coroner’s report revealed that Allen had suffered four broken ribs during the earlier collision, and a hole in the wall of his heart allowed blood to leak into the sac surrounding the heart, a condition known as hemopericardium.
On the day of his death Allen was working on his 54th book, Vulgarians at the Gate, which decried what he saw as an unacceptable rise of violence and vulgarity in the media.
W.G. Sebald (1944-2001) – It has been said that all of the German writer W.G. Sebald’s books had a posthumous quality to them. That’s certainly true of On the Natural History of Destruction, his magisterial little exploration of the suffering civilians endured during the Allied fire-bombing of German cities at the end of the Second World War. I should say his exploration of the unexplored suffering of German civilians, because the book is partly a rebuke, a challenge to his shamed countrymen’s willed forgetfulness of their own suffering.
I lived for a time in Cologne, target of some of the most merciless bombing. I’ve seen photographs of the city’s Gothic cathedral standing in a sea of smoking rubble. I’ve heard old-timers talk about the war – men grousing about the idiocy of their military officers, women boasting about how they cadged deals on the black market. But I never heard anyone say a word about the horror of watching the sky rain fire. Until Sebald dared to speak.
He produced a relatively short shelf of books – novels, poetry, non-fiction – but he was being mentioned as a Nobel Prize candidate until Dec. 14, 2001, when he was driving near his home in Norwich, England, with his daughter Anna. Sebald apparently suffered a heart attack, and his car veered into oncoming traffic and collided with a truck. Sebald died instantly, at the age of 57. His daughter survived the crash.
David Halberstam (1934-2007) – David Halberstam died working. On April 23, 2007 he was riding through Menlo Park, California, in the passenger seat of a Toyota Camry driven by a UC-Berkeley journalism student. They were on their way to meet Y.A. Tittle, the former New York Giants quarterback, who Halberstam was keen to interview for a book he was writing about the epic 1958 N.F.L. title game between the Giants and the Baltimore Colts. As the Camry came off the Bayfront Expressway, it ran a red light. An oncoming Infiniti slammed into the passenger’s side and sent the Camry skidding into a third vehicle. The Camry’s engine caught fire and Halberstam, 73, was pronounced dead at the scene from blunt force trauma. All three drivers survived with minor injuries.
Halberstam made his mark by winning the Pulitzer Prize in 1964 for his reporting in the New York Times that questioned the veracity of the men leading America’s war effort in Vietnam. Eight years later he published what is regarded as his masterpiece, The Best and the Brightest, about the brilliant but blind men who led us into the fiasco of that unwinnable war. He went on to write 20 non-fiction books on politics, sports, business and social history. I think The Fifties, his re-examination of the supposedly bland Eisenhower years, contains all the virtues and vices of his work: outsized ambition and pit-bull reporting shackled to prose that’s both sprawling and clunky. Like so many writers with big reputations and egos to match, Halberstam never got the tough editor he needed.
The book he was working on when he died, The Glory Game, was completed by Frank Gifford, who played for the Giants in that 1958 title game. It was published – “by Frank Gifford with Peter Richmond” – a year after Halberstam’s death.
Doug Marlette (1949-2007) – Doug Marlette, the Pulitzer Prize-winning cartoonist and creator of the popular comic strip “Kudzu,” published his first novel in 2001. The Bridge spins around the violent textile mill strikes in North Carolina in the 1930s, in which Marlette’s grandmother was stabbed with a bayonet. The novel is set in the fictional town of Eno, loosely modeled on Hillsborough, N.C., the hot house full of writers where Marlette was living when he wrote the book. When Marlette’s neighbor, the writer Allan Gurganus, read the novel in galleys, he saw a little too much of himself in the composite character Ruffin Strudwick, a gay man who wears velvet waistcoats and sashays a lot. Gurganus called the publisher and demanded that his name be removed from the book’s acknowledgements. A bookstore cancelled a reading, charging Marlette with homophobia, and Hillsborough became the scene of a nasty literary cat fight between pro- and anti-Marlette camps. People who should have known better – a bunch of writers – had forgotten Joan Didion’s caveat: “Writers are always selling somebody out.”
Marlette produced a second novel, Magic Time, in 2006. After delivering the eulogy at his father’s funeral in Charlotte, N.C., Marlette flew to Mississippi on July 10, 2007 to help a group of Oxford High School students who were getting ready to stage a musical version of “Kudzu.” The school’s theater director met Marlette at the airport. On the way to Oxford, the director’s pickup truck hydroplaned in heavy rain and smashed into a tree. Marlette was killed at the age of 57. He was at work on his third novel when he died.
Jeanne Leiby (1964-2011) – In 2008 The Southern Review named a woman as editor for the first time since Robert Penn Warren and Cleanth Brooks founded the literary journal at Louisiana State University in 1935. The woman was Jeanne Leiby, a native of Detroit who had published a collection of short stories called Downriver, set in the corroded bowels of her post-industrial hometown. Her fiction had appeared in numerous literary journals, including The Greensboro Review, New Orleans Review and Indiana Review. Leiby had also worked as fiction editor at Black Warrior Review in Alabama and as editor of The Florida Review before taking the job at The Southern Review.
On April 19, 2011, Leiby was driving west on Interstate-10 near Baton Rouge in her 2007 Saturn convertible. The top was down and she was not wearing a seat belt. When she tried to change lanes she lost control of the car and it hit a concrete guard rail and began to spin clockwise. Leiby was thrown from the car and died later at Baton Rouge General Hospital. She was 46.
At the time of her death Leiby was, by all accounts, performing masterfully at a thankless job. Due to punishing state budget cuts, she had slimmed The Southern Review down, cancelled some readings and other events for the journal’s 75th anniversary in 2010, and ended the annual $1,500 prizes for poetry, non-fiction and fiction. She did all that without a falloff in quality. She was also working to merge The Southern Review with the LSU Press.
In a conversation with the writer Julianna Baggott, Leiby confided that during her job interviews at The Southern Review she’d offered her opinion that the journal had gotten stodgy and that it was too Old South and too male. One of the first things this woman from Detroit did after she got the job was to lower the portraits of her predecessors – all men – because she thought they were hung too high.
Don Piper (1948 – ) – Don Piper might be the most intriguing person on this list. He died in a car crash – then came back from the other side to write a best-seller about the experience.
On Jan. 18, 1989, Piper, a Baptist minister, was driving his Ford Escort home to Houston after attending a church conference. It was a cold, rainy day. As he drove across a narrow, two-lane bridge, an oncoming semi-truck driven by a trusty from a nearby prison crossed the center line and crushed Piper’s car. When paramedics arrived at the scene, Piper had no pulse and they covered his corpse with a tarp. Since I can’t possibly improve on Piper’s telling of what happened next, I’ll give it to you straight from his book, 90 Minutes in Heaven:
Immediately after I died, I went straight to heaven… Simultaneous with my last recollection of seeing the bridge and the rain, a light enveloped me, with a brilliance beyond earthly comprehension or description. Only that. In my next moment of awareness, I was standing in heaven. Joy pulsated through me as I looked around, and at that moment I became aware of a large crowd of people. They stood in front of a brilliant, ornate gate… As the crowd rushed toward me, I didn’t see Jesus, but did see people I had known… and every person was smiling, shouting, and praising God. Although no one said so, I intuitively knew that they were my celestial welcoming committee.
Piper recognized many people who had preceded him to the grave, including a grandfather, a great-grandfather, a childhood friend, a high school classmate, two teachers and many relatives. His story continues:
The best way to explain it is to say that I felt as if I were in another dimension… everything was brilliantly intense… (and) we began to move toward that light… Then I heard the music… The most amazing sound, however, was the angels’ wings… Hundreds of songs were being sung at the same time… my heart filled with the deepest joy I’ve ever experienced… I saw colors I would never have believed existed. I’ve never, ever felt more alive than I did then… and I felt perfect.
Alas, perfection was not destined to last. A fellow preacher had stopped at the scene of the accident to pray. Just as Piper was getting ready to walk through the “pearlescent” gates and meet God face-to-face, the other minister’s prayers were answered and Piper, miraculously, rejoined the living. This, surely, ranks as one of the greatest anti-climaxes in all of Western literature. Nonethless, 90 Minutes in Heaven, published in 2004, has sold more than 4 million copies and it has been on the New York Times paperback best-seller list for the past 196 weeks, and counting.
(Image: Orange Car Crash – 14 Times from eyeliam’s photostream)