By Daniel Wallace
Algonquin, 238 pp.
When it comes to delivering exceptional deathbed farewells, there is, understandably, a lot of pressure. Who wants to be clichéd, shallow, or worst of all, meaningless at such a moment?
In "Ray in Reverse," Daniel Wallace's second novel, we meet the recently deceased Ray in heaven, in the "Last Words" group where the dead have the opportunity to discuss their final utterances. "Another pillow please, and some blankets" is deemed deep, metaphorical even. "I wonder if I left the oven on," is disappointing.
Because he is that sort of guy, Ray initially lies about his final moments, inventing a tale of bleeding to death by the side of the road, all the while proclaiming his love for his wife, "the greatest, most wonderful woman ever." Ray wishes that his banal death from cancer had such high drama. Ray wishes a lot of things. In fact, his real final words are "I wish."
"I wish?" I wish for what? Not even Ray knows the meaning behind his words. This doesn't sit well with the other members of the group. "Meaning is important in heaven," one of them remarks.
Meaning is exactly what has been lacking in Ray's life. The novel, as it works its way backwards, beginning with his death and ending with his childhood, searches for what he might have wished for. There are plenty of places for regret, many things he could have chosen to wish for. He is selfish and bitter and small-minded. He has been an unfaithful husband, an indifferent father.
Ray's life is a series of missed opportunities and unspoken longings. Ray finds himself in the middle of other people's dramas; he is never the star of his own. "You couldn't leave me," Jenny, his wife, tells him. "You were never really here."
There are no epiphanies to be had here, no climaxes to await. Wallace steadfastly refuses to deliver any such larger moment. Although this occasionally makes for frustratingly slow reading, Wallace sifts through many quotidian events and emotions and pulls out small, beautifully observed moments. When Ray loses his hair to chemotherapy, Jenny gathers it to leave out for the birds in their backyard. "Wrens, finches, cardinals, they were going to raise their young in his hair." As Ray grows weaker, Jenny is consumed with taking care of the birds, and Ray, to his delight, imagines that he is growing wings. "He wanted to remove his robe and have his wings fully feathered, spread wide. Then he didn't know what he'd do. Fly maybe."
Ray never approaches flight, but he is not without his small moments of triumph. He saves a bird from the neighbor's bullying cat: "He had saved somebody and in the aftermath, he was breathless. He hadn't been sure it was possible." And as a child, he had just enough common sense to return a newborn baby, stolen as a prank, to its mother. "He was simply doing the right thing, and doing the right thing came as naturally as breathing."
In moments like these, almost against Wallace's will, the voice of optimism cries out: maybe there has been something to Ray's life after all. Wallace draws near to this idea, as if considering it. But ultimately there is no comfort doled out, no sense that these small moments do add to make a life that was worth living.
Despite its wry humor and tender observations, the novel is dark. Redemption is not even possible in heaven. In "Ray in Reverse," heaven is a place of waiting lists and nepotism, jealousy and loneliness. The next world, it turns out, is not so different from this one.