A Million Heavens could do without purgatory

The San Francisco Chronicle wrote that author John Brandon “is a great young writer who can—and probably will—do just about anything.” With his third book, A Million Heavens (McSweeneys Books, $24), it appears that the 35-year-old means to give anything a try.

At the center of this much-populated novel is Soren, a 4-year-old boy who, during his first piano lesson, spontaneously plays a unique and beautiful piece then slumps from the piano bench into a deep coma. The mystery of Soren’s prodigal music fades into the background while the story digs deep into the lives of the inhabitants of Lofte, the failing town in New Mexico where A Million Heavens is set—many of whom dedicate themselves to standing vigil in the parking lot below Soren’s hospital room. These characters are utterly human in their lonely desert existences; and their sad, complicated, interweaving stories—told in Brandon’s fine prose—make for wonderful literary fiction.

But, as well as these, there is Reggie, a gifted musician, recently killed in a car accident, and writing songs in purgatory to be delivered to his band mate, Cecelia, via magical realism. And there is a wolf, continually slinking in the town’s shadows, who gets as much of the narrator’s close attention as do the others, so that the creature comes to develop too-human-like thoughts: “The wolf had always believed the desert had nothing to hide and no place to hide it, but perhaps he was the secret.”

I’m all for unconventional literature, and even genre crossing, but these experiments of Brandon’s, more than a distraction, limit the novel’s overall potential. Brandon has a rare talent for creating intricate characters, and he has the patience and the foresight to sit back and let them lead him to write powerfully human fiction. In pressing these unnatural elements into the narrative, he’s limited his characters’ options, so that the story’s conclusion might have been entirely different, and even more magical, without them.

Although Brandon’s experiment may have failed him in this instance, he’s young, smart and very talented. It wouldn’t surprise me to see his next trial, or the one after that, produce a masterpiece. Like the author does with his characters, I think we just need to sit back and be patient. ★★★☆☆

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