The Authenticator by William M. ValtosWilliam M. Valtos
Hampton Roads ($22.95)

by Peter Ritter

What happens to us when we die? Elysian fields or earthworm buffet? Since none of us knows and most of us aren't particularly keen to find out, we might do well to turn our musing to a more assailable but no less timeless conundrum: what happens to philosophy majors after graduation? Do they descend into the Stygian netherworld of the service economy, or like novelist William Valtos, do they put their crania-load of arcana to some practical purpose? Valtos's second novel, The Authenticator, assays both questions with morbid rigor. Though his answers on the former matter are not quite convincing, he does prove that there is life after academia for those with a faculty for compelling storytelling.

Valtos has made a career bumping against the Big Existential Question. His first novel, Resurrection, which was made into a movie for HBO, deals with the sweet hereafter and those stubborn souls, who, unwilling to go gently into that good night, return to pester the living. The Authenticator likewise turns on a near-death experience—NDE in the parlance of the transcendental trade—and those who may have passed secrets along from the Other Side. The novel's seeker is Theo Nikonos, an earnest amateur thanatologist who conducts interviews with the formerly deceased for the obscure "Institute for the Investigation of Anabiotic Phenomena." Rather than dashing straight-away into Theo's inquiries, however, Valtos plays a cute metafictional trick in the novel's forward: a disclaimer from the book's protagonist claiming that "My legal counsel has advised me against seeking publication of this account. It is his opinion that any perceived profit motive would prejudice the jury in my upcoming trial."

Aside from piquing the casual reader's interest, the unusual prelude also casts a shadow of doubt over the account that follows; we may assume that a fictional narrator would tell the truth, but how are we to know? Indeed, Theo's methodical reporting of the events that lead him to his precarious legal position consistently tests the limits of credibility. His search begins in an upstate New York hospital where a woman—who has purportedly made the round-trip to eternity—is being held captive by a shadowy HMO. Analytically gifted scientist that he is, Theo is dubious. "I initially approached NDE research with the same skeptical attitude I had towards the existence of God," he tells us. "Like any good empiricist, I believed only that which could be proven, whether by experiment, by observation, or by logic."

Desperate to connect with the beautiful and erstwhile-expired woman, however, Theo soon acknowledges that there may be more in heaven and Earth than is dreamt of in his philosophy. Valtos, meanwhile, spins an increasingly noir-ish murder mystery around his character's headlong stumble toward enlightenment. Yet, even as the bodies pile up, The Authenticator keeps its meditative tone, circling again and again around the possibility of an afterlife and the revelations it might engender. A fairly conventional genre novel may seen a strange place to find such cosmological musing, but Valtos pulls it off by suggesting throughout that the truth—in this mystery as much as in the Big Mystery—is often more complicated than science allows.

Rain Taxi Online Edition, Summer 2000 | © Rain Taxi, Inc. 2000