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Book Review: I Never Saw Paris by Harry I. Freund

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Harry I. Freund's second novel, I Never Saw Paris, is the story of a businessman's day of reckoning. Told from his point of view with gentle humor, the story is reassuring, and, unless you believe in the literal interpretation of scripture, there is not much here to argue with.

Manhattan business owner Irving Caldman is out buying blue shirts because his wife of nearly 40 years said he needed some, they bring out the color of his eyes. Waiting to cross at a corner, Irving barely notices the two women and the young man waiting with him, that is, until an elderly man loses control of his car and plows into them. Next thing Irving knows, they're all lying dead, pedestrians and driver alike, and he is floating above the scene, ascending.

It turns out the five of them ascend together, to someplace dark, their ethereal bodies recognizable. They are met by an angel named Malakh, who specializes in Christians and Jews from Manhattan. His job is to help the dead review their lives to prepare for the High Court, where they will be judged. Malakh is a harried, mid-level bureaucrat, beset by the backlog of souls waiting for his help. He claims to only know his job, not what any other angels do.

Each of them reviews their lives: the middle-aged personal shopper; the elderly African-American grandmother; the male prostitute in his twenties; the driver, a candy-store owner who survived Auschwitz. Nobody is completely honest at first, and nobody is completely good, but Irving thinks he'll be in trouble when it's his turn. He was a wealthy womanizer who convinced himself his wife didn't know and who never let his son stand on his own two feet.

As their ordeal wears on, the group of souls become fond of one another and also become feisty. They question, and they want answers or they won't budge. Malakh threatens them, sweet talks them, sends emissaries, but they won't forsake each other and go on to their individual judgments.

I Never Saw Paris is a fairly standard Judeo-Christian take on the afterlife that glosses over the thorny details. Because Malakh doesn't say what happens to souls of other faiths, the author sidesteps the whole question (although an illusion to reincarnation leaves the door open to other traditions). And by having his characters represent various denominations (Presbyterian, Catholic, evangelical Christian, and Jewish) and grouping together the devout and the non-believers, he skips over plenty of contrary doctrine.

Aside from being part of the Western religious traditions, what seems to bring this collection of souls together is the quality of their lives. If they had been really bad people, they wouldn't have been sent to Malakh (so says the angel).

With those preliminaries settled (yes, there's a heaven; no, it doesn't matter if you were a Christian or a Jew), the real subjects of the book can be addressed. What does it mean to be a good person? How good does a person have to be to get to Heaven? What are the roles of love and repentance?

I Never Saw Paris is a pleasant jaunt through death and judgment in the Judeo-Christian tradition. Because how you conduct yourself matters more than what you believe, many will find comfort in this vision. Perhaps the most profound notion here is that there is great strength in people coming together and supporting one another, and this principle is at work even after death. From Fruend's mouth to God's ear.

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About Nancy Fontaine

Nancy Fontaine is a librarian and freelance writer living in New Hampshire with her husband, two cats, and every four years during presidential primary season, the national press.