If you go

What: Best-selling author Mitch Albom will speak and sign his new novel, "The First Phone Call from Heaven"

When: 7:30 p.m. Tuesday, Nov. 19

Where: First Congregational Church, 1128 Pine St.

Tickets: Vouchers to attend are $8 and are good for $8 off the book. Purchase vouchers in advance, over the phone or at the door. To buy tickets go to the Boulder Book Store, 1107 Pearl St., or call 303-447-2074

Given his background, you could hardly be blamed for thinking Mitch Albom might be a hard-bitten, cynical kind of guy.

After all, he's a Jersey boy who also lived in the tough-as-nails environment of Buffalo and just outside Philly. To boot, he started his career as a journalist and ultimately made his name as a sportswriter, that particularly no-nonsense subspecies.

You could hardly be blamed. But you'd be wrong. Albom, the million-selling author of such books as "Tuesdays with Morrie" and "The Five People You Meet in Heaven," has earned his greatest fame as -- he doesn't shy from the notion -- a bringer of hope and comfort.

"I'm nowhere near as hard-bitten as you might imagine. I've become 'soft-bitten' over time," he says by phone backstage at a charity fundraiser in Philadelphia. "I'm glad people take comfort from my books. I'm glad it gives them some hope. I take some teasing for it, but I'm very much aligned with hope. It's more popular to be cynical than hopeful in the journalism business, but I refuse to succumb. If you give up on hope you have walked away from one of the most precious things in life."

With his new novel, "The First Phone Call from Heaven," Albom returns to the hopeful concept of an afterlife -- a blessed and comforting afterlife -- he first explored in 2003's "Five People." In the first novel, a wounded and embittered war veteran wakes up in heaven, where he learns that protocol is to have five people explain and describe your life to you.

In the new novel, the people of Coldwater, Mich. -- there is such a town, but Albom says in a note that his creation is purely fictional -- begin receiving actual telephone calls from deceased loved ones. Soon, the phenomenon turns the small town into a media circus and a tug-of-war between believers and cynics, religious zealots and skeptics, worshippers and people seeking hope.

Albom, who will appear at 7:30 p.m. Tuesday at First Congregational Church, 1128 Pine St., Boulder, refuses to offer glib or easy answers, despite the relatively simplicity of the story, and never gives up on hope. Readers will have to gauge the objective "truth" of the phone calls. But the author is interested in much more than that.

"I wanted to ask myself what would happen if this really occurred," he says. "I think the reaction would be kind of hysterical, from 'This is the proof we've been waiting for,' while other people would be saying, 'You have got to be kidding.' "

In the course of telling the story, Albom manages to paint a pretty fair metaphorical portrait of the current political divide among Americans, where even finding common ground to have a discussion seems increasingly difficult.

"There's a lot of shrillness, debates about what's really true or not," he says.

Albom looks askance at gimlet-eyed "realists" who insist on seeing scientific "proof" for every phenomenon. He believes in science but also in the possibility that there are some things beyond the grasp of science. He tells the story of a woman he met who had been grieving the loss of her daughter. On the first anniversary of the death, the woman was sitting on the girl's bed when suddenly a framed photograph fell off a dresser and onto the floor.

"She said, 'I know it was her, sending me a signal,' " Albom recalls. "Well, you could bring physicists and scientists in to tell you why that happened, the physical reason it took place, but that will never be enough to convince that woman it wasn't real. ... If it's a miracle to you, that should be enough."