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The Afterlives


The Afterlives

Thomas Pierce’s HALL OF SMALL MAMMALS was one of the most critically acclaimed story collections of the year when it was published in 2015. Those of us who have been wondering what Pierce --- whose short fiction often explores the convergence of the realistic and the sublime --- might do in novel form now get the delightful answer, with the publication of THE AFTERLIVES.

Much like Pierce’s short stories, this debut novel is rooted in realistic, down-to-earth characters and places. In this case, the protagonist is a young man named Jim Byrd, a commercial lending officer in the town of Shula, North Carolina (side note: it’s always refreshing to encounter fictional characters whose jobs are truly mundane, no more glamorous or scintillating than those of the average reader). Jim has lived in Shula his whole life and has watched the town become something of a Mecca for the so-called White Hairs, the senior citizens who flock there to retire and, eventually, to die.

"Rich and big-hearted, THE AFTERLIVES shows what’s possible when a seemingly ordinary man gives free rein to his curiosity and spirit of inquiry."

Jim is still young, nowhere near a White Hair himself, and that makes it even more startling when, in the book’s opening pages, it’s revealed that Jim has just had a cardiac arrest. He was clinically dead for about five minutes, before doctors managed to revive him and install a digitally connected pacemaker (called a HeartNet) that can monitor his heartbeat using his mobile device. Unlike the accounts Jim has read of near-death experiences, his was entirely without long tunnels, white lights and choruses of angels. Indeed, he remembers nothing, a fact that continues to haunt him long after he has returned to normal life.

Jim’s death still manages to preoccupy him, in fact, even after he rekindles a romance with a high school girlfriend, Annie, who has recently returned to Shula with her preteen daughter following the unexpected death (for real this time) of her husband. Annie introduces Jim to the “Church of Search,” a secular community that utilizes emerging hologram technologies to present speakers from around the world on a variety of topics --- sort of a virtual, spiritual TED talk.

Meanwhile, Jim has continued to be fascinated by some unexplained phenomena at the local Mexican restaurant, located in a historic house that was once the home of a young married couple and was the site of a mysterious fire decades earlier. Jim’s inquiry into the haunted happenings at the Mexican restaurant send him on a quest, of sorts, one that will culminate in an experiment that might test everything he and Annie have built together.

Pierce’s novel is both wryly funny and genuinely provocative, as it raises questions about everything from the rebirth of relationships and the existence of an afterlife (or maybe multiple afterlives?) to the very nature of existence itself. Jim’s first-person narration is interspersed, at the end of each of the novel’s sections, with the saga of the young couple who once inhabited that Mexican restaurant/haunted house. These parts of the book can be read as a traditional ghost story, but it is also much more than that.

Rich and big-hearted, THE AFTERLIVES shows what’s possible when a seemingly ordinary man gives free rein to his curiosity and spirit of inquiry.

Reviewed by Norah Piehl on January 19, 2018

The Afterlives
by Thomas Pierce

  • Publication Date: January 8, 2019
  • Genres: Fiction
  • Paperback: 384 pages
  • Publisher: Riverhead Books
  • ISBN-10: 0399573003
  • ISBN-13: 9780399573002