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THE LAST TEMPTATION OF CLARENCE ODBODY by John Jughead Pierson (Hope and Nonthings). Fiction, 2011. 222 pages. I'm blown away by what a great idea this is! With The Last Temptation of Clarence Odbody, John Jughead Pierson takes the holiday classic It's a Wonderful Life to a new and very interesting place by exploring what would've happened if George Bailey actually had drowned that fateful Christmas Eve. While the destinies of all of those who George left behind are delightfully detailed, the story focuses mainly on what happens to Ernie the cab driver, little Zuzu and, unexpectedly and awesomely, Frank Hagney, the silent, po-faced brute charged with pushing the evil Mr. Potter's wheelchair around. And as the title implies, we also see what existence is like for Angel Second Class Clarence Odbody as he weaves in and out of the lives of the main characters after failing to save George.
            Pierson, who is probably best known from his guitar playing days in Screeching Weasel, does a fantastic job humanizing the mythic yet sort of one-dimensional characters from the film, and this makes them ultimately more compelling and sympathetic in a lot of ways. He gives us some backstory about Ernie's abandonment issues, and this makes it all the more cheering when he eventually goes on to live a life his departed pal George would've been proud of.  Zuzu is deeply affected by the loss of her father and grows up to be kind of a flighty, troubled, free-spirited wild child who develops a pseudo-daughter/pseudo-friend relationship with Ernie. And Frank Hagney becomes a fascinating study of menacing coldness that envelopes a core of awkwardly stunted feelings.
            As far as Mr. Odbody goes, he ends up in a sort of limbo between angel and mortal and is stuck wandering the earth, miserably thinking about the choice he was forced to make concerning George and occasionally dropping into the lives of the people of Bedford Falls. The story reaches a satisfying climax (and really, aren't climaxes best when they are satisfying?) when Clarence reveals just why he made the choice he did, and this thoughtful twist offers at least some hope of redemption.
            If you've never seen It's a Wonderful Life, this is a good book. If you know and love the movie, it's an excellent book. Pierson has given his main characters- and the secondary ones- great depth, and through their flaws he's made them even more likable (or in the case of Hagney, at least vaguely likable). The next time I watch this film, there's no doubt I'll be picturing this alternate ending and thinking of these characters in different ways, and this will make it as fresh for me as the first time I saw it. Jughead has earned his wings. -Ben Hunter



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