Reviewed: A Million Heavens
by John Brandon
Google John Brandon. The photo that websites like to use depicts him as physically imposing, wearing a backpack as if mid-adventure, and smiling like somebody asked him to. It’s a good picture. But in the nature of a John Brandon novel, what the picture makes me wonder is where he is.
John Brandon knows the power of location—the titles of his first two novels are nothing if not indicative of this: Arkansas and Citrus County. But his newest title tackles a more metaphorical kind of location—the afterlife—and the emotional dwellings of those who have to face it. Originally discovered in the slush pile at McSweeney’s, Brandon’s got an impressive track record: on his third critically acclaimed novel, recently off a year as the John and Renee Grisham writer-in-residence at Ole Miss, pegged by the late, great Barry Hannah as “remarkable,” and even a past Oxford American contributor. He’s a Southerner out of small-town Florida, but for the first time in A Million Heavens shifts his storytelling out of the Southeast to New Mexico. Well, westward ho, John Brandon.
There are, as the author said in a 2010 interview with the Southern Literary Review, “way too many characters” in A Million Heavens. The point of view switches every page or so, from the stories of an aging wolf and the father of a comatose piano prodigy to the many other sad-but-not-to-a-point-of-exasperation characters who suffer loneliness and insecurity in the near-skeletal ruins of a failing town: The characters accurately reflect the author’s shift in setting from the rugged, gothic South of his past work to the vast and empty Southwest.
Debatably the most integral of the “too many,” one character is college-aged and has recently suffered the death of her friend, who posthumously (yes, he is another of the novel’s protagonists) realizes that he loves her. Try to interweave that tender plot with the desperate, nameless gas-station owner who wanders into the desert alone to meet his fate, or with the thirty-something woman who seeks to get pregnant by a troubled adolescent—it is complex. Their different stories offer comparison and contrast—one character’s struggles pitted against those of the next. But what works so magically is that no character trumps any other in terms of loneliness or coping. They are all isolated, in different ways, and their strange, random encounters (or deeply realized personal relationships) with the others help provide a realistic landscape of the ups and downs of both loneliness and coping.
The themes and topics divulged are simple, but not surface-level. Grappling with loss and maintaining humanity are real things that real people deal with but aren’t always handled eloquently in print. The college girl faces the death of a friend. The father faces the potential loss of his comatose child. The mayor faces the death of his town. The successful thirty-something faces the loss of herself to a relationship. The gas-station owner faces the demise of his goals and dreams. The piano teacher faces the end of her career. And the wolf ties them all together by facing the inevitability of his own life’s end—or maybe simply its urgent lack of meaning.
So where does the reader end up in A Million Heavens amid so many simultaneous threads? Just like in the real world, after traumatic events and losses take their toll, you end up right where you were before those things happened. Life doesn’t go back to normal, but life goes on. The most profound part of this novel is that it’s satisfying, even without a tangible or dramatic conclusion for the majority of the characters. It leaves one swift note of humanness ringing in your ears, reminding you that people overcome things, subtly or powerfully, and in the end that it is all right to have questions. Nothing is resolute. Nobody has the answers. And John Brandon can remind you of that eternal struggle, but mostly just reassure you he feels it too, no matter where a person is and no matter where he or she is headed.