April 16: “No One Goes to Heaven to See Dan Fogelberg” by B.J. Novak

Happy Saturday, Story366! Today is a day and a half, as I completed that five-mile hike with my Cub Scout den this morning. Since Karen is out of town and there’s no way in a gazillion years I was going to take my three year old on that hike—I’d be carrying him like at least 4.8 miles of it—we had to get a babysitter. Which meant I had to clean the house. Which meant I left that for last night/early morning, which meant that I didn’t get that eight-ten hours recommended on a normal day, let alone with a five-mile hike staring you in the face. But we got to the hike on time, we did the hike, and then I came home.

And then I fell asleep on the couch for almost two hours while my kids played video games and ate all the Drumsticks in the freezer. So, win-win.

Still, I was able to wrench myself off that couch—the most comfortable couch in the world, by the way, one we picked up from our sublease in 2010—and made some chili dogs and read some B.J. Novak.

B.J. Novak, as you might know, is a very successful television writer, producer, and actor, known most of all for the American Office, which he was great in as Ryan, the intern who turns to the dark side. I’ve also seen him in Inglorious Basterds, as one of the Basterds. And in 2014, he released One More Thing: Stories and Other Stories, a collection of stories (and other stories).

The elephant in the room is that Novak is a short story writer with a release on Knopf because he can be, that he was able to get into publications like The New Yorker and McSweeney’s because he has this interesting name association, and name association like that sparks curiosity, and curiosity sells copies. Right? That equals a Knopf contract, and the publisher knows they’ll make their money back, at least, for the same reason. So, a long as a book exists, why not publish it.

But can the actor write?

A grad student of mine was over today, serving as the hike-time babysitter, and she commented on Novak’s book on my to-read pile. She wondered if it was good, and I had to tell her I didn’t know, because, you know, it’s on the to-read pile. That student, in effect, picked today’s book, so I dove in, once I was able to crawl across the house and erect myself enough to reach the damn thing.

Let me tell you this: Novak is no Jimmy Stewart, reading poems to his dead dog on The Tonight Show, Johnny Carson and America tolerating him because he’s Jimmy Fucking Stewart and he’s eighty-hundred years old and he’s George Bailey and Mr. Smith and your goddamn grandfather, though probably better than your grandfather. He’s not Jewel releasing A Knight Without Armor (or is it Night? I can’t keep track of that pun anymore). Who else? Ally Sheedy had a book out, didn’t she? And let’s not forget the dozens of actors who put out children’s books, writing about some brass sleeve button who has a picnic with a lemur, a genius metaphor for mixed-marriage rights.

I’ve not read anything by any of those actors before, so I really shouldn’t make fun. But I have read Novak’s book, or at least the first half dozen stories. And you know what? I love it.

I don’t throw a compliment like this around very often, but One More Thing kind of reminds me of 40 Stories and 60 Stories by Donald Barthelme. I wouldn’t say Novak is as Post-Modern as Barthelme—he can’t be, really, because it’s 2016—but the book has that kind of feel. There’s one story, after another, that feels unique, dryly funny, and came from the type of imagination that is powerful and eclectic enough to write a ton of stories that all come off as clever, smart, funny, and literary.

Most importantly, the stories here feel like stories, not like TV scripts, not like skits for an improve show or pitches for pilots. I wondered about that, going in, I have to admit (hey, didn’t I make assumptions about L. Shapley Bassen just yesterday?), if Novak’s TV background would influence his style, his arcs, his purpose. As far as I can tell, that’s not true, either. So sorry, B.J. Novak.

I could have written about any of the stories I’ve read so far from the book. The first, “The Rematch,” is about the tortoise and the hare. The next, “Dark Matter,” is about a guy who has an obsession, one he’ll go to any lengths to satisfy. I’m going to write about the story after that, though, “No One Goes to Heaven to See Dan Fogelberg,” which is a damn funny story about the afterlife.

No One Goes to Heaven to See Dan Fogelberg” features a guy named Tim who dies—of course it does. He’s sixty-six when it happens, but when he was six, he promised his dying grandmother that he’d see her in heaven some day, and she smiled. Then she died.

Flash forward to Tim’s first day in heaven and he of course wants to see his wife, Lynne, who’s excited to see him. They pick their lives up again and engage in a pretty normal death-life, taking walks, eating good meals, just being with each other. They’re in their younger bodies—the ages they were when they met—and really, it sounds pretty good to me, sort of like a May day, the school year over, and my paycheck freshly deposited into my account. Not the first time we’ve seen this really basic version of heaven, but Novak sells it with good details and easy prose.

Tim remembers his promise to his Nana eventually, and before too long, seeks out his Nana. When he gets ahold of her, a funny thing happens: She has a hard time remembering him. First, she’s thinks he’s his dad, her son-in-law, but Tim reminds her of her Timmie, his deathbed promise, and Nana is kind of like, “Oh! Timmie! Of course!” She thinks he died as a child, but that’s a hint at how time moves in this afterlife, her not realizing sixty years or more have passed and it’s Tim as a twenty-five year old who’s calling her now.

Tim finds out that Nana is a pretty busy lady, and all his efforts to meet up—he wants her to cook a Grandma Sunday dinner—are fruitless. She’s always going to concerts—which Tim and Lynne don’t understand—and flat-out stands Tim up a couple of times. Tim and Lynne decide to attend some of these concerts for themselves.

This is where Novak gets really creative with what his Heaven is, as the couple finds out they can see any act they want—as long as they’re dead—either in a private show or in an arena atmosphere. They see Roy Orbison. They skip Sid Vicious. They see Frank Sinatra. The Sinatra concert leads to the most surprising and funniest part of “No One Goes to Heaven to See Dan Fogelberg,” as Novak lets on that the concerts, like everything else in Heaven, can be whatever the dead want them to be, including backstage access, including … well, read the story to find out.

Tim and his Nana hook up eventually, and the lesson that Nana relays to Tim is where Novak is at his best, as he hits on all kinds of themes, as well as the nature of death, the nature of life, and the grand scheme of everything that happens in a person’s life. Again, I don’t want to give too much away, but what Tim finds out expands his mind, educates him, and puts perspective on everything he’s ever known.

I’m glad that it’s Saturday, as I’m not getting this post up after eleven, like I did the last two nights. I also get to curl up with relaxation time tonight—those aspirin are wearing off—and I’m going to stick with B.J. Novak. I won’t call him the best actor-writer out there, because he’s just a pretty damn good short story writer. I hope he keeps doing it.

B.J. Novak

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