Earthly Pleasures by Karen Neches Simon & Schuster, 311 pp., $14 (paperback) Reviewed by David Marshall James Those writers who trod through the Pearly Gates in search of a literary domain do so at great peril. Beyond the guesswork inherent in that endeavor, every reader is likely to have a highly individualized concept of Heaven that's probably going to clash with the author's. However, as Johnny Carson used to say, "You buy the premise, you buy the bit." And some writers, such as Fannie Flagg-- in her sentimentally comedic masterpiece, "Can't Wait to Get to Heaven"-- succeed triumphantly in their temerarious foray. Karen Neches, writing as Karin Gillespie, has produced several amusing, down-to-earth "Bottom Dollar Girls" novels set in fictitious Caboo Creek, S.C. In "Earthly Pleasures," she sets her sights heavenward, creating a celestial landscape that's far more Shirley MacLaine than harps-and-choirs. Well, as long as you're aiming high, why not shoot the moon? Neches, who lives in Augusta, Ga., sounds a mercifully non-marshmallowy chord in her opening chapter, in which protagonist and heavenly "hospitality greeter" Skye Sebring indocrinates a youthful skateboarder, Chelsea, who landed way too hard on her noggin. The petulant teen immediately wants to jam with the Jim's-- Morrison and Hendrix-- and the story begins to rock and roll. When Skye is called upon to enroll in an "Earth Orientation" class-- she's quite content where she is-- her course centers on the messages of five Beatles tunes. Come on: Surely you can guess at least two. Meanwhile, back at the terrestrial ball, portions of the plot transpire in Atlanta; Birmingham, Ala.; and fictitious Devon's Island, S.C. The principal characters include Ryan Blaine, the reformed-lothario son of a former U.S. president; Susan Sims, a veterinarian; Caroline Brodie, a sassy, elderly woman in a nursing home; and the "Hot-Dog Hag," a dolled-up, 70-something weenie vendor. Little do they, along with most of the supporting players, realize that there are only one or two "degrees of separation" connecting them, in spite of their disparate backgrounds. Neches ties everyone and everything together in true Fannie Flagg fashion, and her breezy style propels the reader past some maudlin story turns. The cinematic potential here is noteworthy, and the author seems well aware of that, as she's even cast some of her parts. For instance, the SB (Supreme Being) speaks in the voice of the Divine Miss M, Bette Midler. Moreover, the movie soundtrack would be fab, of course. Fab Four, that is. * * *
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