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In 'Replay,' A Life Full Of Second Chances

by Brad Meltzer
Jul 10, 2008 (All Things Considered)

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When I was 19 years old ... Oy, I already sound like an old man. But that's the point. When I was 19, my dreams were even bigger than my hair, which is saying something. And it was in the midst of those dreams that I first read the novel Replay, by Ken Grimwood.

Replay has a simple premise: In the first chapter, the main character, a 43-year-old man, sits at his desk and drops dead of a heart attack. When he wakes up, he feels odd, taking in familiar smells and old sights. He spots a Playboy centerfold of a brunette on the wall, and he realizes he's back in college, in his freshman dorm room. He's 18 again — with all the memories of his 43-year-old self. He gets — as the title says — to replay his life.

And this time, he's no dummy. He doesn't marry the wife he knows he'd one day divorce. He bets on the '69 Mets and makes a ton of cash. He's rich, rich, rich. And then he turns 43 and drops dead — again.

When he wakes up, he's now in his junior year of college. And this time, he realizes that money doesn't matter as much as he thought, so he lives a different life. Until he turns 43 and dies again.

When he wakes up, he's now in his 20s — the space between death is shrinking. He keeps dying and coming back. But what cracks the book wide open is the moment the main character spots a classified ad in the newspaper. It's pre-1963 and the ad reads, "If you know who Lee Harvey Oswald is, call me." Suddenly, the hero of Replay realizes he's not the only one out there reliving his life.

Of course, this being a thriller, there's a love interest and a bad guy. But the best part of Replay isn't the plot; it's the fact that the book is about you — yes, you.

The moment Ken Grimwood has his authorly hooks in you, you can't help but look at your own life and think, 'What would I do differently if I could live my life again?' And not in the way we all casually play this game. Really — What would I do differently?

By the time the hero lives his bohemian life in Paris (still not the perfect life) or approaches Steve Jobs in that garage in Cupertino (not a perfect life either), you realize that this book isn't a thriller. Rather, it's an instruction manual: You should never live your life looking backward. You live your life by going forward.

So how much do I love this book? When I was 22 years old, I was working and playing puzzles at Games magazine. I had no money, a $359 apartment and $10,000 in college debt. And the first thing I did with all the cash I didn't have? I tracked down Ken Grimwood and tried to buy the movie rights for this book. I didn't just love Replay, I believed in it, I dreamed of it. I wanted this book — this book that only I had found.

And that's when his agent told me the film rights were snatched up years ago. Nice try, big shot.

Years later, when the Internet became the Internet, I found myself searching for Ken Grimwood again and learned that he died in 2003. I also discovered that I wasn't only believer; at the time, there were fan sites dedicated to Replay. Hundreds of people — like the fellow replayers we never realize are out there — were all dreaming my same dream.

I wasn't first on this bandwagon; I was last. But as any true believer — or replayer — knows, there's a strange odd power in knowing you're not alone in this world.

You Must Read This is produced and edited by Ellen Silva.

Copyright 2014 NPR. To see more, visit http://www.npr.org/.

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