In Martha Brockenbrough's heaven, old people show too much leg playing leap frog, and the church choir covers classic rock. Clearly, Brockenbrough is not a follower of the New Testament.
That's good news for heathen readers who will delight in the author's absurdist take on the after life in her devilishly riotous young adult debut, "Devine Intervention." Steeped in the heavenly tropes of guardian angels and lost souls, "Devine Intervention" is a satire in the vein of Libba Bray's "Beauty Queens," only with a decidedly sacrilegious twist.
It opens with a page from a handbook that is sent, upon death, to select members of SRPNT—the Soul Rehab Program for Nefarious Teens (Deceased) — in an effort to combat the "growing problem of crowding in the lower levels of Hell." One of those teens is a 17-year-old named Jerome, who had the misfortune of being punctured in the forehead by a friend's wayward arrow and finds himself at the pearly gates that are festooned with motivational posters and guarded by a man with "a mustache the size of a harmonica."
Jerome reacts as any dead teen would when denied immediate entrance and given specific rules to follow to reclaim his soul. He misplaces the handbook and proceeds to violate its Ten Commandments for the Dead.
Among his soul rehab assignments was playing guardian angel to 16-year-old Heidi, but the one time he was really needed, Jerome was too busy yukking it up with a fellow SRPNT member to prevent Heidi from walking across a frozen pond and falling through the ice to her death. Now Heidi and Jerome are both in soul limbo.
The two are quite the odd couple. Heidi is a "not hot ... cross-dressing lumberjack," according to one of the book's uncharitable bit players. Jerome is a sexually frustrated virgin. But in death, their relationship is like an old marriage — more familiar than romantic, as well as conflicted, especially once Heidi realizes Jerome may have jeopardized her soul through sheer laziness.
They do have one thing in common that's likely to resonate with the book's intended audience. Neither Jerome nor Heidi felt loved by friends or family or were especially true to themselves when living. Death allows them to witness loved ones from another plane like a scene from Charles Dickens' "A Christmas Carol." Seeing others grieve their absence builds the self esteem of these troubled souls and brings some emotional heft to a story where comedy dominates.
"Devine Intervention" is told in chapters that volley between a third-person perspective on Heidi and first-person narratives about Jerome. While both perspectives are written with searingly inventive humor, it's Jerome's voice that will have readers flipping pages as quickly as they can turn them to see what he'll have to say next.
Brockenbrough is a gifted writer who finds amusement in focusing on life's minutiae and who captures the slow-mo drama with which teens experience them, such as the time when Heidi's "tongue felt like a lump of nasty cotton living in the armpit of a bum who has an apartment at the dump and not even the good kind of dump with busted car parts. The kind with fish heads ... and old transvestite wigs."
It is a pleasure to read a writer who so delights in language, and who writes so captivatingly in a teen voice with such imaginative description.
The story isn't without its flaws, however. The timeline of certain scenes is confusing, including the lead-up to the book's conclusion, which sees Heidi's fading soul morph in and out of a dog's body. But for readers who appreciate an apocryphal story line and wordsmithing, "Devine Intervention" is a little slice of heaven.