By John Brandon. McSweeny's, $24.
“In this place, each person feels the dignified solitude of one engaged in a lost cause.” So says Cecelia, a troubled young musician, in John Brandon’s third novel, A Million Heavens. She’s imagining a friend’s afterlife, but she might as well be describing the fractured, frustrating and sometimes ecstatic world around her.
A Million Heavens follows a number of loosely connected people in a dying New Mexico town. Soren, a young boy who mysteriously falls into a coma after playing a piece of music, unites most of them. One central character is Soren’s nameless father; two others, Cecelia and Dannie, hold vigils outside the clinic where Soren is being treated. Their stories correlate with others—a wolf traversing the town, a dead musician writing songs—that are less realistic in tone.
While Brandon’s previous novel, Citrus County, employed realism to home in on several lives in conflict, he uses a grand, metaphysical layer of storytelling to takes on bigger themes here: the legacy of grief, economic anxiety and parenthood. Brandon’s panoramic approach brings mixed results: That certain compelling characters vanish for long stretches can be frustrating. At the same time, brief flashbacks to the harsh childhood of Dannie’s boyfriend, Arn, effectively contrast with the frustrations and tragedies in the book’s present day. Some of the conclusions are intentionally messy—e.g., the outcome of a thread that revolves around Cecelia, the wolf and the dead musician—but the convergence of Brandon’s separate narratives pays off in two gripping encounters at the novel’s end. The density of A Million Heavens sometimes aggravates, but it feels necessary for its conclusion to work.