Michael Morris is a name well-known to fans of Christian fiction, particularly novels that cross over well into mainstream bookstores. His 2003 release, SLOW WAY HOME, was named one of the best novels of the year by two secular newspapers in U.S. cities. LIVE LIKE YOU WERE DYING, a 178-page novella, may well receive similar accolades for the year 2004.
As country music fans might suspect, the book is based on the lyrics from a Tim McGraw hit of the same title, written by Tim Nichols and Craig Wiseman. Morris took the lyrics and fashioned a story that seamlessly integrates all the elements of the song --- a grave medical diagnosis, the ensuing quest for adventure, mended relationships, and a reconnection with God.
In Morris's version, Nathan Bishop cheats death in an industrial accident, only to have the resulting x-rays reveal a much more serious problem. Weighing his medical options, Nathan decides it's time that he starts to live as if he were dying. That means, in part, doing risky things he's never done before, like skydiving and riding a bull, both of which are activities mentioned in the lyrics. That also means doing things he never took the time to do, like spending time with his wife and 12-year-old daughter. And finally, it means doing things he never wanted to do, like forgiving his father.
I have to confess that I was fully prepared to dislike this book. I figured that not even Morris could avoid producing a book that seemed contrived, since the content would be forced to fit the lyrics --- and the lyrics of a country song at that. But Morris proved he was more than equal to the task. Nothing about this book felt forced or inauthentic, and there's none of the "fluff" that I anticipated in a book of this type.
Among the many strengths: Morris's excellent command of the language, realistic dialogue (one of the aspects of quality fiction that too many authors fail to produce), and believable characters. In that last category, two of the standouts are Nathan's father and grandmother, two people who easily could have become stereotypes in the hands of a lesser author. Ron Bishop is reserved and remote, the kind of father who has never been able to show his affection. But Morris avoids casting him in a predictable light or overdoing it with a lot of commentary on why he is the way he is. Ron Bishop just is. And that makes him believable.
Grand Vestal, Nathan's grandmother, gets my unofficial award for "best portrayal of an elderly woman." If, like me, you've noticed that elderly women in Christian fiction are nothing at all like many of the elderly women in your life, you'll be glad to meet Grand Vestal. Morris apparently recognized the fact that older women are, well, not your father's grandmother. They aren't necessarily the sweet, simpering, saccharine women who call everyone "dearie" in too many other Christian novels, nor are they necessarily feisty, oddball characters that exist somewhere else along the caricature spectrum. They're real, multidimensional people --- just like everyone else. Amazing that so few writers seem to realize that. Thankfully, Morris does.
My first time through this book, before I knew I would be reviewing it, I made a note to myself on the end flap: "Excellent in every way." That assessment still stands.
Reviewed by Marcia Ford on October 27, 2004