The high desert of northern New Mexico can seem an unearthly place, its magnificent vastness indifferent to anything of human scale. • In A Million Heavens, novelist John Brandon makes pitch-perfect use of that setting, placing his forlorn cast of grieving characters in that implacable landscape and then, little by little, making them so achingly, richly human that they fill it.
A Million Heavens revolves around two absences. The novel opens with a vigil in the parking lot of a clinic outside Albuquerque. Inside is a comatose little boy named Soren, a sweetly ordinary kid who is motherless, but the apple of his father's eye. The day Soren went for his first piano lesson, he began to play right away: "five gallant notes cut purposefully through the air and then were trampled under by a slow cavalry of low, weighted notes. . . . There was surrender in it. Surrender to forces the boy knew nothing about." The piano teacher was so startled she touched his hand to stop him. He fell instantly — and inexplicably, the doctors say — into a coma.
But the teacher recorded the 16 seconds Soren played, as she recorded all her lessons, and the music, which no one can identify, and the boy's bizarre state have made him a 15-minute celebrity. Hence that vigil: total strangers, first a few, then dozens, who gather in the parking lot every Wednesday night. They don't speak, they just, to use their verb, vigil. And from Soren's room, his stunned father watches them.
One of those people sitting vigil is also trying to cope with the book's other key absence. Cecelia is a college student; like Soren, she has only one parent, a mother who does nothing but watch religious TV and dote on her flock of chickens. But the keen loss in Cecelia's life is the sudden death of her friend Reggie. They played together in a band, one with a handful of fierce fans and a lot of pretensions. Reggie was the songwriter, and he and Cecelia were friends, but it's not until after he dies in a car crash that she realizes he was the love of her life.
From Soren's father (whose name we never learn) and Cecelia, Brandon expands the book's cast of characters. There's the lonesome Mayor Cabrera of Lofte, the dying town Cecelia lives in; Jay, a tough old gas station owner who feels the desert is his personal challenge; another vigil-keeper named Dannie, a restless woman who has fled a bad marriage in California only to hook up with a much younger guy named Arn whose past seems blanker than his present.
Brandon builds the novel by moving among the points of view of all those characters and others, rendering each with beautifully observed, elegantly described detail. The two most unusual characters: a wolf and the late Reggie.
The wolf patrols a vast territory surrounding Albuquerque and may be something more than an ordinary wolf. Certainly his memories are ancient, visions in which human "empires fell. Their great cities burned and blew away like cigarette ash." He is fascinated by humans all the same and understands them in ways they don't know themselves. But, like the people he watches, lately he feels some harsh, strange wind blowing through his brain.
Reggie is — well, he's not sure where he is. Purgatory, or some kind of angel's waiting room? The afterlife, or at least his, turns out to be a huge sort of hall with nothing in it but a mat and a piano. Then later, a harmonica and a framed photo, a library and a bar; then some of those go away — but the gist of it, Reggie figures, is that he's still supposed to be a songwriter, or at least there are songs he needs to write before he goes anyplace else.
How he does that, and what happens to the music he creates, is the imperfect but lovely answer to all the grief in A Million Heavens.
Brandon, who was born in Bradenton and raised in New Port Richey, set his last novel, Citrus County, on the Florida Gulf Coast. Its realistic but feverish tale of a middle-school romance gone absurdly awry made deft use of the state's claustrophobic humidity and half-abandoned suburbs.
A Million Heavens has its own kind of ghost towns, and Brandon is just as skillful at using the desert's dry distances and perils. Even here on earth, it seems, even within our own hearts, we may find ourselves alone in a vast empty place. Like the characters of A Million Heavens, in ways simple or startling, we can find connections.
Colette Bancroft can be reached at [email protected] or (727) 893-8435.