Ray Williams is dead. He is in Heaven as the story opens, in a support group for folks who are not happy with their last words. Last Words is one of several support groups in Heaven, each designed to help the recently deceased get through unfinished issues from their previous lives. Ray's own last words were heart-breakingly brief: I wish. . . . Ray has lived his life once going forward; now he will live it in reverse. So, through a series of heavenly flashbacks, Ray's life is laid bare for his examination: the unresolved issues of his sexuality, his marital infidelities, his troubled relationship with his son, all the way back to scarcely remembered scenes of his childhood.
Ray in Reverse is the second book by Daniel Wallace, whose debut novel, Big Fish, garnered praise for its comic treatment of life and death issues. Once again, Wallace has found an unusual perspective for tackling such troubling topics as remorse and missed opportunities. The story is told through the voice of one of Ray's fellow members of Last Words: Ray, like the rest of us here, is dead. He sits in a folding metal chair toward the back of the group, right on the fringe, as though he is unsure of himself, of where he belongs. That's fine, he's new here, and there is always a transition from one world to the next. Through a dozen or more episodes, Ray reviews his life in search of his best moment and his worst. As is the case with many of us, it is easier to find the moments of shortcoming than those of heroism, but Ray is determined to stick with it, to delve back into the darkest recesses. After all, he has all eternity to reflect.
The epilogue finds us back in Heaven, awaiting the moment when Ray will share his desired last words with the group. He has piqued their interest, but they are a jaded bunch after all these millennia. As the narrator tells us, I prepare myself, as I notice we all do, to feign an emotionally empathetic response when he tells us how he meant to tell his wife and son that he wished he'd been a better father, or he wished he'd been a better husband. But Ray surprises us. Surprised me, too. Ray in Reverse has all the makings of a comedy, along the lines of Heaven Can Wait, but Wallace takes it in another direction entirely. It is much more introspective and poignant, yet it retains moments of humor, chaos, and joy, much like life.
Bruce Tierney is a writer in Nashville.