by David Long; Boston, Houghton Mifflin, 2006, 288 pages, $23
Dr. Schmetzer is professor and vice-chair for medicine in the Department of Psychiatry, Indiana University School of Medicine, Indianapolis.
For his fifth novel, author David Long began with the words, "Ghost of a suicide" scribbled on a scrap of paper. From there, he went on to construct a very different view of what the afterlife might hold. His main character is already dead when the book opens. In a series of flashbacks, intertwined with stories of others who unknowingly live alongside "the ghost," he paints a vivid picture of real life—its meanings, its everyday dramas, its difficulties, and ultimately its triumphs.
The main character, Evan Molloy, is a successful man from a good family. He is college educated, not particularly religious, and a typical product of 1970s America—a bit of a rebel but not too much. While he was alive, he always wanted to do the right thing. But his burden, among others, is a recurrent depression. Because his father is a strong character, he hates to admit this weakness in himself. He seeks treatment but unfortunately not enough to keep him from killing himself. The suicide, although premeditated, is sort of offhand and occurs when he is on leave from work and alone at home after his wife leaves him. His suicide itself is described only in the vaguest terms, as is his awakening four months later. He finds himself in limbo, able to roam about only his former house and yard.
Over the ten years since his suicide, other families have come and gone, inhabiting the house in parallel with Evan. But they don't really need his help. Eventually, however, a single woman, Maureen, moves in. Maureen is trying to get her life back after a lengthy affair with a married man, and it's not going so well. Evan, ever helpful as in life, wants to assist her, but he seems powerless to interact with the inhabited world. What happens from there is perhaps the real awakening in the book.
This book can be read quickly, but it has multiple layers of meaning to be mulled over at greater leisure. This is not a typical ghost story. The prose is well crafted, the important characters fully fleshed out, the psychological struggles intensely realistic, and the concept of purgatory—both while living and after death—quite unique. Anyone who is psychologically minded will find this a fascinating piece of literature. In an interview published online, the author said that he looks carefully at the thin line between success and failure, and how a "small detail" can make all the difference. This is a book full of small details leading to important results, both failures and successes.