Let me begin by saying that writing a novel is a terrific achievement. I know, having written one ~ and only one. My hat is off to anyone who can complete a novel.
That said, here is my honest opinion of Beers in Heaven by Ford Forkum, a gently comic look at the afterlife which I finished reading last Sunday.
Characters: Beers in Heaven tells the story of 20-year-old Zack Preston and his struggle to make sense of his life and adapt to Heaven after an untimely death.
Zack is a sympathetic, though slightly alienated character. He meets the phenomena of life and after life with a kind of resigned skepticism. Here, he talks with Stan, an “orientation guide” in Heaven, after just having relived an unpleasant episode in his life.
“So how far along are you with recovering your memory?” Stan asked.
“I can remember everything up to the time I graduated high school.”
“Good job. It must be a relief to finally remember who you are.”
Zack shook his head. “Well, I’m aware of what went before, but it doesn’t really comfort me.” He pondered for a few seconds. “Now that I think about it, there are lots of things I would rather not have remembered.”
“Yeah, I know. Everyone has experiences like that. But the bad times help make us who we are. You know that saying— anything that doesn’t kill you makes you stronger!”
“So I’ve heard, but I don’t necessarily agree unless, by some twist of logic, things like phobias and post-traumatic stress are considered strengths.”
Stan shrugged and tilted his head. “But it’s all over now, so who gives a crap, right?”
“It doesn’t feel like it’s over. I just experienced it!”
Not all of Ford’s characters get physical description. Perhaps Zack, as an “every man” in some sense doesn’t need any. But Stan gets some description ~ he has “thin brown hair” and tinted glasses, and wears a red Hawaiian shirt. His cohort, Lucy, is a “glamorous blonde woman.”
One of my favorite characters is Woobles, the talking giraffe:
Standing at only around eleven feet tall, the creature appeared oddly refined. The pattern of spots on his hide looked unnaturally uniform, and its hair brightly colored and soft. But its most remarkable feature by far was unmistakable self-awareness in its eyes.
Ford’s characters, all of them quirky, are mostly defined by their dialogue, including God.
“Well,” God said, frowning and crossing his arms, “excuse me for having trouble keeping up with billions of requests all day, every day! It’s a damn miracle I can get anything done at all!”
Of course, God gets some physical description.
Suddenly, a blinding light flashed before them all, with such overwhelming intensity that nothing could be seen beyond the mausoleum but pure, white light. When the light subsided, they saw him.
It was God.
It took everyone’s eyes a few seconds to adjust. Looking directly at God at the wrong time can be like staring straight into the sun through binoculars.
Plot: Zack Preston’s after-life threatens to become as dysfunctional as his life.
Setting: Heaven is the setting — a sort of resort community spread across a series of clouds set in the firmament. It seems to be run like a benevolent but slightly dotty corporation.
What I thought could be done better: I would’ve liked more character description. Certainly, Zack, as the protagonist, should get a little description. Does he have a perpetually quizzical expression, perhaps? I’m sure Ford, as he wrote, visualized Zack. It’s a stronger story, imho, if he shares that visual.
Likewise with Amber, the angel. She’s described as wearing “professional business attire,” and that’s something, but awful little. Does she have red hair and green eyes? I don’t mind using my imagination to see the characters, but in my ‘umble, it’s the author’s job to give the reader something to work with. I’m aware that not everyone shares that opinion, so I offer it here FWIW.
What I thought was good: I loved the gentle, quirky humor. Ford has a sharp sense of the ridiculous, but expresses it in ordinary, prosaic terms, which points up the absurdity. Here, a newly created and as yet nameless Woobles tries to decide on a name for himself.
The giraffe belched up some cud and began to chew on it. “Hmm,” he thought. “How about ‘Girafferty?’ No, that’s too generic-sounding. Besides, I shouldn’t derive my name from my species; people wouldn’t take me seriously. How about ‘Gerry Rafferty?’ No, that’s still too ‘giraffy.’ I need something distinctive and original.”
He swallowed his cud and began to rotate counterclockwise as he drifted along. “How about…’ Poobar Balubu’?’”
Just plain silly, but I had to laugh — “Poobar Balabu.” I’ve been referring to one of my dogs as Poobar Balabu all day. And I’m dying to use the phrase “too ‘giraffy'” in a conversation, but don’t believe I’ll ever get to, outside of a conversation about this book.
“That’s a nice coat, hon, but maybe a little too giraffy?” No, I guess not.
I knew I’d enjoy Beers in Heaven right from the beginning. In the Foreword, since the book has “God” as a character — and you know, and Ford obviously knows how people can be about religion — he has this great disclaimer:
This book is a work of fiction, and all characters and people mentioned are not based on real people or things. These facts must be given special consideration because there is a supporting character in the story referred to as “God.”
To deflect potential accusations of blasphemy, the aforementioned character is not intended to be the God. The character is instead a fictional god who also happens to be named God. The role this fictional character plays is the all-knowing and omnipotent creator of the universe, the one whom people communicate with in their prayers.
Now that that’s out of the way, readers of all religious persuasions can enjoy this book knowing that their personal deity isn’t being made fun of.
Ford also fills the narrative with puns and plays-on-words. In the Prologue, for example, as he describes God’s troubles with trying to create life, which evidently is tricky, even for God, there’s this little gem:
“Damn it!” he whined. “Why is life so hard?”
Dialogue is snappy and fun. This passage, where Zack first learns from a minor Heavenly official named Max that he’s died and gone to Heaven is, I think, reminiscent of Monty Python:
“This may be somewhat difficult to accept, but you’re dead.”
“You’re dead, as in deceased. Kicked the bucket. Or, in the parlance of political correctness, you’re ‘mortally impaired.’”
“What? I’m not dead!”
“Yes, you are.”
“No, I’m not.”
“Indeed! Then why don’t you check your pulse?”
Zack checked his pulse with his left hand, and then his right. He checked his neck and placed his hand on his chest. “I don’t have a pulse.”
“I hate to be an ‘I-told-you-so.’”
“But If I’m dead, then how am I standing here talking to you?”
“You’re in Heaven.”
I can just hear Eric Idle and Graham Chapman doing this bit. In its combination of attention to detail and imaginative whimsicality, Beers in Heaven is also, imho, reminiscent of Hitchhikers Guide to the Galaxy.
But I also found a touch of profundity in the book. As Zack ponders the meaning of his short life, I thought of Socrates’ observation that “The unexamined life is not worth living.”
Overall: Beers in Heaven is a lovely, light amusing read. It pokes gentle fun at certain tenets of Western religion, but always, I thought, with a certain kindness and respect. And as offbeat as this satire is, who’s to say that it’s not close to how Heaven really does operate? Not me.
Good job Ford!