It might seem brave of Jill McCorkle to set her first novel in 17 years in Pine Haven, a retirement community in the small, fictitious town of Fulton, N.C. After all, the very thought of such a place is freighted with melancholy, slowness, old people at the end of their lives. Surely good, worthy stories must exist in a place like Pine Haven, but it's safe to say that many readers would not choose to dwell there.
To McCorkle, however, a celebrated, prize-winning writer and N.C. State professor, Pine Haven is fertile ground. In this place and in these characters—some who have ended up there, some who never strayed from Fulton, all shaped by the weight of experience—McCorkle animates one life after another. As a result, we're left feeling something like gratitude for being able to see our own faces reflected in that complex jumble of what one character calls "memories looking for a home."
Don't let the title fool you: Life After Life is really death after death. It starts with a death and ends with a death, and the glue that holds together these dozen or so character portraits is a death journal kept by a hospice worker named Joanna. Each entry is Joanna's remembrance of a person whose death is her job to ease and her life's work to witness.
Sometimes we meet these people head-on, sometimes glancingly; other times they are ancillary to the action, like the husband of a Pine Haven resident, whom we never meet but whose own life sheds light on, and humanizes, a character we think we know. Yet even in its focus on people near the end, and the often-damaged people who look after them, the book thrums with the rhythms of life and is shot through with wry humor.
McCorkle pulls us into to this demimonde via alternating perspectives in stories that intertwine and loop back on one another in unexpected ways. Early on, we meet the center's most saintly resident, Sadie, which sets us up for a so-called inspirational story. But this angel of our better nature is outnumbered by characters whose lives are full of regret and scarred by human frailty.
These aren't the genteel codgers and lovable curmudgeons of Cocoon. We meet a flinty Jewish ex-lawyer with no patience for small talk or sweet tea who has retired to Fulton to inhabit the South where the great—and adulterous—love of her life grew up. There's the once-dashing Stanley Stone, whose surface fanaticism for professional wrestling and Herb Alpert obscures deeper truths.
Without soft-soaping it, McCorkle makes us feel something even for the most unlikable characters, like Marge, the Bible-thumping scold whom even saintly Sadie can't stand. By giving us a glimpse of Marge reflected through the eyes of a good man who loved her, McCorkle finds the crack where light gets in, as Leonard Cohen put it, showing us the other side of a human being she's convinced us we'd never want to meet. The only character we get to know who seems beyond redemption is the one whose crime McCorkle deems unforgivable—animal cruelty.
The most heart-wrenching aspects of the book concern not the elderly residents of Pine Haven but those whose lives intersect with the center—for example, there's C.J., a young woman seeking to turn around her hard-luck existence, and Abby, the adolescent girl whose only friends are the center's residents. Abby's parents' fraught relationship—her scheming, ruthless mother and her father, a failed magician—invests the book with immediate, visceral tragedy.
It's important to have empathy, wisdom and humor, and McCorkle shows hers on every page of Life After Life. But it requires a consummate skill to make those qualities sing. And this book sings. It might leave you contemplating the wonder of your own existence, and that of the complex humanity surging past you on the street or glimpsed out of a car window with renewed fascination.
This article appeared in print with the headline "Deathbed confessions."