Saturday, September 1, 2007

The After Death Room

The After-Death Room: Journey Into Spiritual Activism
Written by Michael McColly
Soft Skull Press
Reviewed by April D. Boland

In Michael McColly's work The After Death Room: Journey into Spiritual Activism, the reader travels alongside the author through parts of his own life in America and abroad, in Senegal, as a member of the Peace Corps. We also follow him into the heart of eastern countries like India, South Africa, Thailand and Vietnam, and then into American cities Indianapolis and Chicago, as he encounters yoga gurus, male sex workers, AIDS activists, religious clerics and more. While the AIDS epidemic has already been examined in many ways - economically, socially, politically - McColly's aim is to look at it from a spiritual perspective. We are plunged into not only the darkest realities of the widespread HIV virus - although they are certainly present, and are deeply felt by the reader - but into the strength and endurance that is necessary to survive in such times and circumstances.

It can be said that the human spirit is the main character in this work; we encounter it time and again as the author allows the reader to get to know both himself and others. Because the After Death Room is a piece of travel writing, the only constant character is McColly himself. While everyone else comes and goes, adding themselves to the mix before they disappear, they all share something significant. Each shows us a different aspect of this human spirit that connects all of us, be it resilience, hope, fear, sorrow, or love.

The After Death Room digs deep in order to deal with a number of issues: sexuality, the AIDS epidemic, international cultures, yoga, and the physical and spiritual elements of the individual. McColly manages to bring all of these themes together by inserting himself into the cultures, asking questions about AIDS, and learning what he can. He does each theme justice through his honesty and willingness to examine what we sometimes fear to see. This may be due, in part, to the fact that Michael McColly is HIV positive. He is not an outsider looking in; conversely, he is an insider looking out around him to see what is going on in this global community and to report back to the rest of us.

The reader is able to learn from each visceral experience because McColly's writing style is so real. He sees beyond the surface of people and situations in a way that few people can. It is inspiring but unsettling, which is an important element of the nonfiction genre. A good work of nonfiction should make the reader see the world differently, and McColly certainly accomplishes this goal. He makes us think and re-think the tough issues because they affect us all, whether we realize it or not.

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