John Brandon came out of nowhere in 2010 to score a front-page New York Times Book Review rave for his second novel, Citrus County, following the exploits and mistakes of a teenaged loner. Loners who feel bereft of their own exploits populate his follow-up, A Million Heavens, a portrait of a town turning inward in the wake of a mysterious medical crisis.
Brandon’s story wraps around another teenager, Soren, who fell into a coma after suffering a seizure during a piano lesson. Rumors that Soren played an unearthly, beautiful tune just before collapsing inspire a parking-lot vigil outside his hospital in the slumping town of Lofte, New Mexico, whose economic security hangs on whether the mayor can woo a megachurch into moving its headquarters there. Brandon keenly explores how various Lofte inhabitants internalize this call, including Soren’s piano teacher and his father, but focuses on two whose wanderings in the town connect the rest: Cecelia, a slacker college student who transfers onto Soren her grief at the death of her bandmate and friend, and a wolf that has been circling the town looking for food, and becomes transfixed by her celestially assisted music.
Brandon’s haziness around the specific cause and meaning of Soren’s coma works in the book’s favor, and apart from one character’s literalized 40-day vigil, the author avoids such appeals to any particular faith. Instead, Soren himself becomes the town symbol, and Brandon’s decision not to make him an angelic figure in retrospect crystallizes the abstracted point of view from which A Million Heavens is told as an examination of how tragedy works on people. Their often-selfish impulses have little to do with the target of the vigil, but the townspeople of Lofte don’t view themselves as either honoring or desecrating his memory; they’re just moving uncertainly toward an elusive happiness.
The real frontier in Lofte is an internal one, as people weigh how far they have to go before they can mirror the satisfaction they think they deserve. Slipping out of their routines is the first step; that’s why Soren’s father still believes, with a steadiness outside of fact, that his son will wake up, even as he shrinks his own life to the dimensions of his son’s hospital room. Languorous and diffuse as the roads that weave Lofte’s lonely souls together, the plot of A Million Heavens sometimes slows so much as to suspend Soren in a medically inadvisable place, leaving the town paralyzed along with him. But in crossing these borders between living and dead, Brandon finds kinship in the closed set of strangers that are unknowingly, yet believably, drawn into a common story.