- The Washington Times - Saturday, September 23, 2006

CAN’T WAIT TO GET TO HEAVEN

By Fannie Flagg

Random House, $25.95, 365 pages

REVIEWED BY JAMES E. PERSON JR.

Among the prayers Christians sometimes repeat automatically, there is one passage in particular worth closely considering for its implications: “Thy kingdom come, thy will be done on Earth as it is in Heaven.”

In the world of humble Elmwood Springs, Mo., the small-town setting of Fannie Flagg’s novel “Can’t Wait to Get to Heaven,” this passage is a call to embrace and show forth the kind of self-giving, other-directed life that is articulated across all the world’s religions. Small deeds that spring from a good heart ripple out and affect the lives of others in life-affirming ways that the initial giver cannot imagine, visiting upon us “a foretaste of Glory Divine,” in the words of the old hymn.

Elmwood Springs is the home of 90-something-year-old Elner Shimfissle, a big-boned widow who lives alone in town, having spent her early years on a farm.

Possessing a delightful, homely sense of humor and a childlike wonder at the everyday miracles of life — interesting facts about the natural world she learns while watching the Discovery Channel, the wonders of electricity, the sunset she views every evening from her back porch alongside a handful of friends who together form “The Sunset Club” — Elner has been a source of encouragement, correction and generous financial support to her family and neighbors for many years.

She has also been the despair of her high-strung niece, Norma Warren, who is worried that Aunt Elner is far too active and outspoken, and that she needs to act her age — and be shuttled off to an assisted-living facility as soon as possible.

When we meet her at the novel’s outset, Elner has lived a full life of simple goals and accomplishments, her only regret being that she never got to visit Dollywood. On the morning her story begins, Elner had started the day by doing something Norma had warned her against, pulling out a ladder and climbing up into the fig tree in her front yard, to gather some figs to make a jar of preserves.

Unfortunately, while standing atop the ladder she disturbed a nest of wasps in the tree. When the furious insects flew at her, down she fell, hitting the ground with a wallop and losing consciousness.

When Elner awoke she was in the hospital in Kansas City, and her only thought was how Norma was now probably going to take away her ladder privileges for good. Then she drifts into a peaceful sleep, and it is at this point that the novel’s story line begins and moves forward.

From the outset, it is a dual story line, with friends reflecting upon how their lives were changed for the better by Elner’s influence. Norma’s husband, Macky, reflects upon how Elner steered him in the right direction at a time in mid-life when he was considering divorcing Norma for a younger woman.

A long-haul trucker, the son of an abusive father, he drives across the country thinking about how Elner became the brisk, loving, grandmotherly guide he needed as a youth, guiding him away from drugs and despair.

And dour hair stylist Tot Whooten, who has lived and breathed bitterness after living a life that would discourage anyone, at last finds fulfillment in her life — but not before standing out as the character among all others in the book (aside from Elner) who comes fully alive as a living, breathing human being.

Miss Flagg’s prose fairly sings when Tot hits her mark, as when she states one of the novel’s central concerns fairly early on in the book: “I don’t know how it [modern life] could be any worse. But if the end of the world does come before I can collect my social security, then I’m really going to be mad, after I’ve been looking forward to retiring for years, shoot … Life isn’t fair, is it?”

In another passage, worth quoting at length, we see Tot looking back on the lives of Elner, herself, and her two children, Dwayne Jr. and Darlene: “Elner had always seemed happy, always in a good mood, but she had never had children. Tot’s children had been nothing but trouble from the beginning, even more so after they hit puberty.

“If there was a fool within fifty miles, they had either married it or had numerous offspring with it … Last year when Dwayne Jr. had asked her what he could get her for Christmas, she had requested ‘a vasectomy’ and told him that she would even pay for it, but he had taken the money and bought himself an off-road vehicle instead. He was a lost cause.

“She was now working on Darlene to have her tubes tied, but that was going nowhere, because she said she was scared of anesthesia. When [Norma’s daughter] Linda Warren had adopted that little Chinese girl, Norma had come into the beauty shop wearing a sweatshirt with the girl’s picture on it, and under the picture it said ‘Someone Wonderful Calls Me Grandma.’ Tot figured she would wind up wearing one that said ‘A Lot of Potential Criminals and Misfits Call Me Grandma,’ and she was supporting almost every one of them.

“Tot got in her bed and pulled the covers over her head and cried about Elner, and herself as well, while she was at it.”

The effect of passages like this and others in Miss Flagg’s well-spun tale is akin to those old “Eunice and Ed” sketches on “The Carol Burnett Show”: laugh-out-loud funny, but with a haunting sense of recognition in its undercurrent of regret over a life that didn’t turn out as hoped.

Unlike Garrison Keillor’s fictional Lake Wobegon, Minnesota, where “the women are strong, the men are good looking, and all the children are above average,” Elmwood Springs is a place where everyone has endured the sorrows of modern life and has the scars to show for it.

But joy keeps breaking through. And in Elner’s firsthand perceptions of Heaven it is plain that there is much to be said for a good life well lived, and that the small choices made daily make powerful differences in the lives of others. Elner, and all her friends and family members, come to discover that life is a practice field for the life to come, and that Heaven is first embraced here below.

Elner and those who have been touched by her life discover a truth articulated best by the late Father Martin D’Arcy, that Heaven is a state in which all the good things of your life are present to you whenever you desire them — not in memory merely, not somehow reenacted, but present, beyond the barriers of time, in all their fullness.

All of which gives the false impression that “Can’t Wait to Get to Heaven” is heavy on theology, which it isn’t. The vision of Heaven depicted by Miss Flagg is pleasant enough, being long on pantheistic loving acceptance for all, even for the souls of those who held no religious beliefs during their earthly lives.

In the afterlife depicted here, God graciously forgives everything and hints that humanity is evolving into a kinder, better race a little at a time, all evidence to the contrary aside. He exists to answer all of life’s mysteries, including the question, “Which came first, the chicken or the egg?” (The Divinity’s answer is hinted at in the photo that graces the back of the book.)

He also addresses Tot Whooten’s question: “Life isn’t fair, is it?” No, He says, it isn’t. The free choice granted to humanity makes checkpoint for checkpoint fairness impossible, strictly speaking. But we do what we can in this present life, loving our neighbors as ourselves, and slowly the total mosaic of human life comes together, to be viewed in full one day in Heaven.

Readers who would enjoy a lively, well-structured story written in accessible prose, in which a marriage is healed, a troubled youth gets his life on the right track, a woman who has known only misery all her life finds happiness at last, an unscrupulous lawyer changes his ways, a would-be rapist gets his violent comeuppance, and where all things work together for good will embrace and treasure “Can’t Wait to Get to Heaven.”

James E. Person Jr. is the author of the biography “Earl Hamner: From Walton’s Mountain to Tomorrow” (Cumberland House).

LOAD COMMENTS ()

 

Click to Read More

Click to Hide