Life after Death: A Novel

Life after Death: A Novel

by Carol Muske-Dukes

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“Why don’t you just die?” Boyd Schaeffer asks her husband, Russell, one night during an argument. The next day, he does just that. Russell was rich, sensitive, charming, but always unreliable—and it is not clear to Boyd what emotional legacy his untimely death has bequeathed her. Now, she and her young daughter embark on a journey of grief,

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“Why don’t you just die?” Boyd Schaeffer asks her husband, Russell, one night during an argument. The next day, he does just that. Russell was rich, sensitive, charming, but always unreliable—and it is not clear to Boyd what emotional legacy his untimely death has bequeathed her. Now, she and her young daughter embark on a journey of grief, self-reproach, and self-discovery as funny as it is serious, and so profound and surprising that her individual life, in its quiet midwestern setting, takes on the universal lineaments of myth.

With the help of several unconventional companions—as well as her daughter, who offers a child’s instinctive wisdom about life’s mysteries—Boyd begins to understand that endings are often also beginnings, that the Book of Life and Death is constantly being rewritten before our eyes.

Editorial Reviews

From the Publisher
“An aching awareness of mortality...suffuses every scene in Carol Muske-Dukes’ luminous new novel, which turns a tale of sudden loss into an astonishing meditation on love and bereavement.”

“Carol Muske-Dukes’s writing is filled with poignancy and humor, achieved through her understanding of what it means to encounter death through the peculiar circumstance of being alive.”
—Steve Martin

“In her passionate novel Life After Death, Carol Muske-Dukes takes us right up against the edge where all lives end. Her prose is stunning, as always; and her fusion of grief and laughter and rage is extraordinary.”
—Ursula Hegi

“Daring and full of surprises, this story takes on the big questions and holds them up to the light, examining them, shifting them. We see life after death—and life before death—from many angles. In scenes rendered with crisp, lucid prose, we are given a range of perspectives on being human; some are recognizable and some are entirely new.”
—Elizabeth Strout

Publishers Weekly - Publisher's Weekly
"I'm stronger than my own power to destroy. That's my motto now," says Boyd Schaeffer, the protagonist of Muske-Dukes's latest novel (after Saving St. Germ; Dear Digby). Like a fairy tale, Boyd's story begins with a careless but fateful event: a curse uttered during an argument with her insidiously charming husband, Russell, who reveals to her that he believes he is dying. Boyd wishes aloud that he would die, since she suspects him of getting drunk and briefly losing their daughter, Freddy, at the park. It turns out Russell wasn't exaggerating, as his death on the tennis court of their St. Paul home the next day proves. Forty-two-year-old Russell seemed to have everything money, looks, sensitivity. But the two things he really wanted the unconditional love of his wife and literary renown evaded his grasp. His death leaves Boyd with a question and a ghost: who was Russell? Boyd goes back into medicine (a field she left years earlier, after a patient died during an abortion procedure), snubs just about everyone she knows and becomes progressively more bewildered by her own grief as she tries to understand better the circumstances surrounding Russell's death. Boyd is not what one would call likable she's confrontational, stubborn and irascible but it's hard not to be won over by her. Her foil in the novel is Will Youngren, the funeral-home owner who buries Russell. Her quest for the meaning of her husband's life mirrors Will's need to end his own long mourning for his dead twin sister, and the two begin to find strength and support in each other. Muske-Dukes, who is also a poet (An Octave Above Thunder, etc.), has shaped an exquisitely written tale with raw emotional appeal, a deeply humanistic story of death, grief and survival. 5-city author tour. (On-sale: June 12) Copyright 2001 Cahners Business Information.
Kirkus Reviews
Though her objectives are often transparent, Muske-Dukes's latest, if a bit macabre, is an affecting tale of a guilt-haunted man and woman who learn to accept the inevitable presence of death in life. The story, Minneapolis-set, moves between past and present as the two protagonists learn age-old lessons. Fortyish Boyd Schaeffer, a widow and the mother of preschool daughter Freddy, is an obstetrician who stopped practicing when a woman she was performing a late abortion on died. Will Youngren, also known teasingly as Dr. Death, runs an undertaking business. He's 40, unmarried, and can cope with most deaths except those of babies and young children. Will and Boyd meet when she comes to make the arrangements for the funeral of her husband Russell, who has died of an apparent heart attack while playing tennis. Both are obsessed with the dead: Boyd not only has never forgotten the fatal abortion, but she now feels responsible for Russell's death as well. The day before he died, they had quarreled, and she had asked him to do her a favor and "die." And Will still feels responsible for not having saved his twin sister Signe, whose sled careened into a tree when they were 14. As Boyd, troubled by Russell's seemingly continued presence (she keeps finding notes he wrote for her) starts practicing medicine again and tries to help daughter Freddy accept Russell's death, she discovers the real cause behind it. There are some other bittersweet truths that emerge about Russell, a charming, wealthy man and a liar—all, as it turns out, smoke and mirrors. And when Will tells her about Signe, both find opportunities to exorcise their ghosts and move on. An intelligent, sometimes luminous take ona distressing subject.

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Product Details

Random House Publishing Group
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5.19(w) x 7.99(h) x 0.68(d)

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Priscilla soukpun comes in with Will’s mail while he is on the phone with his mother. Priscilla is beautiful: heart-shaped face, a solid curtain of jet-black razor-cut hair down her back—a Laotian girl, Hmong, of the Boat People who arrived in Minnesota in the wake of the Vietnam War. The church groups that had sponsored them welcomed them—and the Hmong settled in, opened restaurants and flower shops, but did not assimilate easily. But Priscilla is different: young, Americanized, modish in her short skirts and bangles. Her quick fingers are delicate, each one circled in a thin gold ring. Will notices this as she sorts envelopes. She is like the girl in “The River Merchant’s Wife,” he thinks. He’s heard the poem read recently, read by a Bereaved lover, with a mixture of depthless sorrow and heroic restraint. Priscilla’s hair is cut straight across her forehead, like the girl’s in the poem, and he can sense in her the timeless passion of the poem’s narrator. If local people resent the Hmong, it is because of their close-knittedness, Will thinks, or their melodious liquid tongue. He thinks of heavy-breathing Swedes playing hockey and smiles gratefully at Priscilla over the receiver. She has come to him from the Pre-Need department, because his mail often gets mixed up with theirs and vice versa. In a business built on euphemism, “Pre-Need” would stand, more or less, for “still breathing.” Priscilla counsels individuals and families on burial versus cremation, purchase of family plots, lawn crypts, or mausoleums, and financing for these various options.

He hangs up, and Priscilla gestures toward the phone. “Your mother.”

“My mother. Absolutely right.”

He makes a face and Priscilla laughs.

“She wants chamber music played all over, not just at wakes. In the casket-selection rooms, the viewing rooms. It’s touchy. Most people don’t want too-serious music, you know. They want a little subdued Catholic doo-wop or elderly Lutheran Shepherd with flute.”

He stands up, mimes playing a flute, swivels his hips. Pris- cilla’s eyes narrow as she checks out his hips.

“Get some respect. Your mother is right. Waxy flowers on the coffin, creepy organ tunes. People need something better at funerals. They don’t need to hear Elton John.”

She turns away, busying herself with the mail. Elton John, he thinks, and he sits down, chastened. He stares at Priscilla’s bent back. He’s running four mortuaries now—all offshoots of his father’s original Highland Park trunk business, where he keeps his office. The branch mortuaries, scattered across the Twin Cities and suburbs, each boast an executive manager: Not one is a woman. He glances at Priscilla again, abruptly envisions a black camisole.

He imagines Priscilla advising her Pre-Need customers in the black camisole, which shimmers, turns to the smoky embroidered silks of her country, veils that drop one by one, revealing her small, golden breasts. She opens the lid of a black lacquer box and waves away red opium smoke, smiles into the faces of the large-boned, sensible folk who have come to talk about the storage or disposal of their enormous dead bodies. She claps her hands and fields of flickering red petals turn to a blue rain of poppy seeds and diamonds—she dances naked against a backdrop of mountains in Lan-Xang, land of a million elephants. But then she vanishes: Will is back in the diminished atmosphere of Pre-Needs. Here, the living hurry to purchase the pay-by-the-month La-Z-Boy death lounger, the faux-Hellenic vault, the Star Trek sepulchre (the lost one is beamed up on a video screen)—padding the threshold to the afterlife.

Much to his dismay, he has just now seen his own future in the death industry right in front of him, on his own desk: a glossy stock brochure and prospectus. Here is a huge conglomerate trying to buy up all the mom-and-pop funeral homes, of which his holdings are an example. How does one repel the advances of these sharks? They blow into town, buy everything up, consolidate the services (no more in-house embalmers), and then raise prices. Astronomically. They’re doing it all over the country and Will feels overtaken, feels the heavy breath of the inevitable on his neck. Take the money and run, a hot voice, the voice of the camisole, cries within him. He thinks of his mother again, how she’s slowly lost touch since his father died, how she hoards food and talks to herself. Take the money and run, he thinks. How much time do any of us have? Let Mega-Death bury the dead.

Priscilla smiles at him again as she leaves. A flower grows up inside him, its perfect blossom her naked body, but it hasn’t the same power over him now. His thoughtful assessing gaze wraps about many breasts, many legs, but his heart is not engaged. Will is weeks away from forty, unmarried, though he has come close.

He comes close to people, swerves away. Perhaps it’s because of the false intimacy of his job. He’s not close to anyone, really, though he has many friends. He doesn’t call to mind the spooky cliché of a funeral director—he’s tall, athletic-looking, was a hockey player in college. His boyish face has stayed boyish, his longish hair in its gentleman’s ponytail is darker now, his blond mustache combed neatly. His slightly unexpected appearance endears him to people. Of course he’s been told that he has a haunted look—meaning, he supposes, that no matter how unthreatening his aspect, he could suddenly turn, reveal a pair of fangs, red-laser eyes. Will pushes aside the stock brochures impatiently. Haunted? Of course I’m haunted, I bury the dead. I sell eternal resting compartments to the dead. The dead come to me to get out of this world with a little dignity. I shake hands with the dead every day.

People offer their suffering to him and he orchestrates it. “Don’t cry,” he whispers, and hands them tissues. “Try to forget,” he murmurs, and produces a Memory Book. He signals for his salesmen, never shadowy—attractive, rather, and transcendentally attentive, capable of producing everything from monogrammed pillows to musical caskets to audio-video–screen grave markers to Aladdin urns for ashes. Will appears at the right moment to shake the hands of the Bereaved. He knows who has sustained the real injury here (not the dead; never the noncommittal dead!), and when he shakes the hands of the survivors, the left-behinds, he meets their stricken, inquiring eyes head-on.

Loosening his tie, he glances into the mirror over the wet bar. He might be a young husband in a framed portrait, a photo set on a mantel above a fire. He wants, he thinks, nothing less than the love of all time, a River Merchant’s Wife kind of love: dust mingled together forever and forever. But his life is Pre-Need: expectation, then nothing.

The outer office buzzes him. The female head of the Schaeffer family is on the phone. Their youngest son dropped dead very early this morning on the tennis court. Heart attack, forty-two years old. Will had heard it on the car radio, driving to work. He had been expecting this call.

“Mrs. Schaeffer?”

The voice is cultured, controlled. Gerda Schaeffer is a woman in her seventies but very much in charge of the Schaeffer family fortune, which was made in real estate by her late husband. Now the family owns everything from a chicken-and-biscuit chain to property-management companies; they are a mini- conglomerate. Will detects a slight crack in the façade of her voice, but then she recovers. Will has gotten to know Gerda a little over these last years. As a wealthy young bachelor, a desirable guest, he’s often invited now to black-tie fund-raisers and chic dinner parties.

He keeps his tone reserved but concerned as they discuss arrangements to deliver the body, the death certificate, the date and size of the wake, the funeral, who will officiate, problems with the press. Mrs. Schaeffer tells Will that her newly widowed daughter-in-law will visit him soon to go over some “readings” for the funeral ceremony.

“It’s not necessary,” says Will firmly. “Not at a time like this. I’ll send someone to her when you feel it’s the right moment.”

“It’s probably better if Boyd comes to you, if you could help guide her in her selection. Do you know what I mean? Give her a couple of days, and she’ll be there.” “Certainly.” Will grimaces, glancing at his calendar. “Whatever you think makes sense.”

Two days later, Boyd Schaeffer sits across from him in one of the four overstuffed parlor chairs he keeps rearranging, trying to anticipate the seating preferences of his visitors. She is saying nothing at all. She is around his age, maybe younger, or a little older; he can’t tell. She wears her dark red hair, the color of cinnamon, pulled back and held by a silver clip, a bird in flight, and she is dressed in a pale summer-weight tailored suit. Will waits for any acknowledgment of his presence, but there is none. She appears lost in thought, her eyes on her feet.

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Meet the Author

Carol Muske-Dukes is the director of the graduate program in literature and creative writing at the University of Southern California. Her most recent collection of poetry, An Octave Above Thunder, was nominated for the Los Angeles Times Book Prize. She has written two novels—Saving St. Germ and Dear Digby—and a collection of critical essays. She lives in Los Angeles.

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