Like golf balls at a driving range, whimsical ideas litter the pages of Sean Bernard’s debut novel, which deftly plays with notions of love, self-awareness, and living on purpose. In Bernard’s hereafter, a pencil-pushing narrator conducts field studies, compiling reports on the living that determine where those souls will be placed in the afterlife. “This is the story of my sixty-second field study,” says our wonky narrator. “It’s the first study I’ve yet to compile about love, and already it’s far stranger than I could have hoped for.” The romantically entangled subjects of this study fascinate the narrator to the point of obsession. Carmelo is an academic with his own obsession: Basque culture in America, while Tetty is a young Basque-American beauty mostly indifferent to the heritage that so captivates Carmelo. As the narrator begins to fall for Tetty, he interferes with her life, introducing himself as her guardian angel. Meanwhile in the hereafter, angels have been mysteriously disappearing, disrupting Heaven’s eternal machinery of morning commutes, report-writing, cheese sandwiches, office gossip, reality TV singing competitions, and golf. FYI, in the afterlife, golf is the only pastime, a person’s memories of life are limited [“By and large, the rooms of our past flutter in dustcover, emptied and ghostless.”] and angels are “just working people with bad memories,” their wings merely for efficiency’s sake, “like good gas mileage.”
Studies … moves between the narrator’s day-to-day in the hereafter and the saga of Carmelo and Tetty on Earth, with the narrator’s chapters written in first-person, while the terrestrial chapters take the form of third-person numbered narratives. In these Carmelo/Tetty chapters, Bernard draws two complex and endearing characters.
He also evokes a poetry of nostalgia: “As a boy, at home in his father’s garage, there hung on the walls three mysterious objects: sheep-shears, a red-stitched bota bag, and a fencepost wrapped in barbed wire. In his youth, these three objects took on the weight of legendary symbols, hieroglyphs.” While describing Carmelo’s foray into sheepherding along the traditional routes of the Basques in the foothills and alpine meadows of California’s Sierra Nevada, he writes: “The old Owens River was a trickle now, a memory, a scrap of a page of a lost and wonderful book. Carmelo tried to imagine years before, a huge swath of greenery and life sweeping down this valley for hundreds of miles.” Unlike Carmelo, solitary Tetty rejects romantic notions, preferring the ordinary, familiar, and real. “People … cling to idea-words. ‘Love.’ ‘Suffering.’ ‘Innocence.’ They probably think they can wrap their arms around water. I vote instead for real words. ‘Cantaloupe.’ ‘Merganser.’ River-rock.’”
The novel’s meta aspects work for the most part, though the author’s Heaven is the crux narrative, with its quirky constructs, including a periodic table of human elements that the narrator and his co-workers use to classify all living souls. The more complex of these souls, it turns out, are difficult to pigeonhole. Studies in the Hereafter has its own complexities. It’s a fun read with just enough pith, and it bodes well for a first-time novelist. Read it now and keep an eye out for Bernard’s works hereafter.