In "The Afterlife of Billy Fingers" Annie Kagan, a Manhattan chiropractor and songwriter, claims that her dead brother, William Cohen, a 62 year old recovering heroin addict and ex-con who was killed in a drunken car accident, explains the mysteries of the universe.
Kagan claims that Billy, as she calls her late brother, provided proof to her that his presence was real. For example, Billy communicates cryptic information to Kagan like "Give Tex a coin" and "There is no sunshine without the sun" and "Take Bach flower remedies." Later, Kagan claims, these cryptic sentences came to have great meaning. This meaning convinced Kagan that she wasn't merely imagining that her dead brother was speaking to her; he really was.
If these incidences are genuine, and if indeed the entire point of "The Afterlife of Billy Fingers" is, as Kagan claims, to aid humanity, then Kagan should be able to do for the general public what she did for those close to her. Kagan and Billy should be able to produce messages that later pan out as true. So far, though, Kagan and Billy have not done this. That being the case, Kagan's claim remains completely implausible.
The reader is left asking whether Kagan simply imagined Billy's monologues, or if Kagan is a manipulator exploiting human grief and fear to make money and achieve guru status.
Kagan describes her own life in bare bones detail. There is little description or depth. She mentions that she is separated from her husband but that they are still in contact. No details are provided about either the separation or the continued contact. She lives in a beach house, which sounds lovely and I would have liked vivid details to help me see her home and the nearby water. There are none.
I don't believe that ghosts can dictate multiple paragraphs of prose, including semi-colons, brackets, and no misunderstood vocabulary words. I have transcribed interviews with living informants, and transcription is a demanding, time-consuming chore. I often have to rewind recorded interviews several times before I can be sure that I am getting words down correctly. Kagan doesn't seem to have this concern. Billy apparently speaks with supernatural precision. Kagan never needs to ask, "Did you mean 'blue' as in the color or 'blew' as in the past tense of 'blow'"? This is the kind of question that transcribers must often ask.
I also did not find Billy believable as a character. The most genuine and raw truth Kagan reveals in her book is the agony of a younger sister who was a loved and good child who lost her beloved older brother to addiction and dysfunction. Annie and Billy's parents were open in their preference for her, not him. Billy behaved badly toward Annie. "I was your own personal James Dean…I ignored you." Kagan tried to save Billy, and failed. Kagan does not write a memoir spelling out the day-to-day hurts of family dysfunction. Rather, she sketches out her history with Billy quickly, and devotes the bulk of the book to his alleged cosmic revelations.
Billy doesn't read to me as a believable sexagenarian heroin addict and alcoholic who has achieved moksha – transcendence. He reads like the creation of a broken-hearted sister finding slim comfort in the kind of shallow, muddled New Age ideals one could pick up by browsing the items near the cashier while waiting in line to check out of a store selling crystals and patchouli incense.
The bulk of Billy's verbiage is directed to Kagan and their bruised and bruising relationship. She worshipped and tried to save him; he resented her, ignored her, and let her down. Suddenly he's in heaven and she's all he's got time for. There are passages that read almost as incestuous. Billy refers to Kagan as "my darling." "Who but you could I tell my secrets to, my darling?" I believe all this as Kagan working out her issues.
Finally I don't believe that Billy is the disembodied voice of William Cohen returning to educate humanity because the cosmic secrets Billy "reveals" are secondhand and shallow, example, "Pain is just part of the human experience…our lives are temporary" Also: there is no such thing as good or bad and you have everything you need.
When Billy wants to communicate how important something is, he describes it as physically large. For example one afterlife entity is important because it is bigger than the sun. Size is a child's way of understanding importance. Billy's visions are earthbound. He describes his own afterlife as floating around in space past stars and planets, "I'm drifting weightlessly through space with these gorgeous stars and moons and galaxies twinkling all around me." In heaven, people wear robes, and they are better looking "than the best looking actor."
Billy encounters his deceased wife, a gorgeous, Swedish, blonde Vegas showgirl, and she is still gorgeous, Swedish, and blonde, and she puts on a cootchie dance for him, but she does it in the form of sexy planets.
Eventually Billy dissolves into oneness, a Hindu idea. In fact Kagan uses a Sanskrit term, "Ishvara," to talk about one of the divine entities Billy encounters. Kagan decides that she and Billy descend from the Lohani, a Pashtun tribe. Kagan has studied Eastern religions and it's easy to see where she picked up these theological trinkets.
I'm guessing that Kagan and her brother are of Jewish descent. One of the saddest aspects of "Billy Fingers" is that in imagining her afterlife and answers to the cosmic questions, Kagan has no use for Judaism whatsoever. Her text is reflective of Jewbu, those modern Jews who have traded their ancestral riches for a vitiated and commodified version of Buddhism and Hinduism.
Billy introduces Kagan to Lena Olin, the movie star. He never inspires her to perform a kindness for another person for which there is no payoff. He does warn Kagan's friend Tex about her drinking, but the point of that episode was to prove that Billy knew things he could not know if he were not a supernatural entity. Kagan does not record playing any role in Tex's recovery. The lack of earthbound service in Billy's heaven is not very deep.