Mitch Albom serves up another helping of superficial spirituality--Review
by Ron Charles
Best-selling author Mitch Albom is back from heaven and ready to consider the mystery of divine intervention on earth.
God help us.
Albom’s latest inspirational melodrama is called “The Stranger in the Lifeboat.” It’s a survivor story about 10 people trapped on a raft with a young man who announces, “I am the Lord.”
Think of it as Tuesdays With Yahweh. If nothing else, this book has made me understand that one day is with the Lord as a thousand years.
We meet these imperiled castaways drifting at sea. They were all guests or workers on a massive yacht owned by billionaire Jason Lambert. He had gathered technology pioneers, corporate leaders, glitzy celebrities and even former presidents for a week-long adventure to “spur each other to change the world” — a cruise version of Davos.In the opening pages, we learn that the yacht exploded and sank in the Atlantic off the coast of Africa. All are presumed lost because somehow this massive gathering of the world's richest and most powerful people was unaccompanied by any attendant ships. If that little implausibility troubles you, you haven't got a prayer here.
On the yacht, a strict separation between guests and workers prevailed, but now they’re running out of water and bickering over Jonathan Livingston Seagull’s drumsticks. Floating on the open ocean with no radio or cellphone service, they struggle to pass the time while staying out of the blistering sun. They quietly wonder if the young man they hauled up from the water “is actually the Lord incarnate.”
The evidence, as usual, is ambiguous. The Lord manages to revive an injured woman, and he revisits an old classic by calming the stormy seas. But there’s no multiplying the fishes, and he’s not particularly forthcoming about his plans for this motley crew. Asked to explain himself, he becomes the God of Therapy and says, “I came here to listen.” As the situation grows more dire and his fellow raftmates beg him to save them, he announces, “I can only do that when everyone here believes I am who I say I am.”
As this divine ordeal drags on, the Lord offers what passes for profundity in “The Strangers in the Lifeboat”: “With science, you have explained away the sun,” he says. “You have explained away the stars I put in the firmament. You have explained away all the creatures, large and small, with which I populated the Earth. You have even explained my greatest creation. . . . You.”Alas, the survivors’ prayers go unanswered, as did mine for better dialogue.
A dead passenger is thrown overboard. Another falls in the water and gets eaten by sharks. One by one, the survivors vanish, like a Jesus camp version of “And Then There Were None.”
Our narrator is Benji, who worked on the yacht as a deckhand. He’s deeply troubled — not only by his impending death at sea but by his failure to stop the yacht from being blown up. But for days, weeks, months, he survives on rainwater and barnacles to write hundreds of pages to his beloved about this adventure.
In alternate chapters, we see that Benji’s notebook is found a year later by Jarty LeFleur, a policeman on Montserrat in the Caribbean. Since the drowning death of his little girl, LeFleur has been blankly moving through the motions of his life. The entire world is still desperate for any details about the famous shipwreck, but LeFleur decides to violate protocol and keep Benji’s notebook secret. “The notebook had narcotized him,” Albom writes. “He fell into a spell when he read it, and he needed to know how it ended.” Deciphering Benji’s handwriting is a slow process, accurately represented by breaking the task into a number of exceedingly small chapters. But perhaps if LeFleur can finish Benji’s account of sailing with God, his faith will be revived.Such soggy inspirational literature makes me seasick. Everything about “The Stranger in the Lifeboat” is sketched in cartoon colors — from its vacuous theology and maudlin tragedies to its class warfare theme. Instead of character development, TV news reports interrupt the story to provide potted biographies of the lost souls. And the Lord’s statements supply all the holy insight of a sympathy card from your insurance agent.
Panning a book like this may feel like harpooning a minnow, but I think treacly metaphysical fiction does us a cultural disservice. To borrow a word, it narcotizes people in search of real spiritual wisdom. That’s a shame because every religious tradition and many thoughtful writers of faith provide profound guidance through dark times of despair and grief. Cotton candy such as “The Stranger in the Lifeboat” is a saccharine substitute that spoils the appetite for sacred food.
Near the end, Benji prays, “Put me out of my misery.”
Ours, too, please.
Ron Charles writes about books for The Washington Post and hosts TotallyHipVideoBookReview.com.
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FLAMINGO BOOK CLUB - 2024
STRANGERS IN THE LIFEBOAT
by Mitch Albom
SOLITO by Javier Zamora
THE SEARCHERS by Tana French
THE KEEPER OF HIDDEN BOOKS
by Madeline Martin
THE HEAVEN & EARTH GROCERY STORE
by James M. McBride
LITTLE MONSTERS bv Arienne Brodeur
THIS IS HAPPINESS by Niall Williams
FOOD NIGHT - Bring a dish to share
THE PRAYER BOX by Lisa Wingate
THE HIKE by Lucy Clarke
REMARKABLY BRIGHT CREATURES
by Shelby Van Pelt
THE NIGHT WATCHMAN by Louise Erdrich
CHRISTMAS PARTY - Bring a wrapped book for gifting