A Million Heavens

  • John Brandon
  • McSweeney’s
  • 272 pp.

The tense dance between destiny and free will moves through the author’s latest novel about the inhabitants — both human and not — of a small desert town.

Reviewed by C.B. Santore

Fate or free will? Do we act of our own volition or are we acted upon? Are we part of a divine plan? Random actors in a world of happenstance? Biological computers following an innate neurological code?

John Brandon, author of two previous novels, begins A Million Heavens ominously through the eyes of a lone wolf, and slowly these questions begin to haunt the narrative like the stalking wolf. The setting is Lofte, a desert town in New Mexico near the Sandia Mountains. Soren, a young piano prodigy, lies in an inexplicable coma in the town hospital. His father is at his bedside, waiting. Each night a band of townspeople hold a silent vigil, waiting. And the wolf prowls, waiting.

Unlike the wolf, “humans rarely waited without knowing what they were waiting for.” Soren’s father is waiting for his son to awaken. Mayor Cabrera is waiting for the unpreventable bankruptcy of his town. Single and childless Dannie is waiting to become a mother. Her boyfriend Arn, orphaned and neglected by foster parents as a child, is waiting for someone to care about him. Cecelia is a college student waiting for a message from her deceased bandmate. Reggie, Cecelia’s bandmate and the victim of a car accident, is waiting in a customized purgatory for whatever comes next. A nameless gas station owner is waiting to begin a trek into the desert. The narrative unfolds from the points of view of multiple characters, including the wolf, in alternating, eponymously titled chapters.

Questions of fate and free will simmer beneath the languor of daily life. People are unwilling or unable to act, either procrastinating or awaiting their fates. Cecelia, Brandon tells us, is “... a tourist in the war of her life.” Mayor Cabrera, the owner of a small hotel in addition to being a politician, asks one of his guests where we have all gone wrong. The young man replies, “thinking that because you want something and it’s a reasonable thing to want and you make proper preparations and you deserve the thing, that you’re going to get it.” Dannie, working as a researcher mining minutia, thinks “nothing could happen until you stopped hoping for it” while Arn works at a lab listening nightly for signs of life in space. Neither the monumental search for other worlds nor the pursuit of trivial details provides a guide.

Action sometimes results in missteps; free will collides with destiny. Soren’s father is befriended by a woman who has contacted him out of concern about his son, but he is just killing time and doesn’t know how to deal with the relationship. Cecelia’s initial reaction to Reggie’s death is destructive. Dannie breaks up with Arn. As the narrator in one of the wolf’s chapters notes, “every creature in the world was laboring to escape the perils of human intelligence and often that went double for the humans themselves.”

The pattern breaks when something or someone pulls each onto a path whose end he or she cannot see. For the gas station owner, “what mattered was getting into the center of something he’d spent his life dawdling on the edge of.” He begins his journey into the desert after being close to putting it off yet again. Reggie, prompted by the appearance of a piano in his heavenly waiting room, gives up his refusal to write music because he finds nothing noble about resisting any longer.

Like dominoes falling, one step begets the next, linking separate lives in a chain of events leading to a perhaps inevitable conclusion — “perhaps” because we cannot tell if the ultimate outcome is predetermined or serendipitous. If Reggie had not begun writing songs from the afterlife, if the gas station owner had not taken that first step into the desert, would the result have been the same?

This is a powerful and thought-provoking book. It has many levels but is above all a magical story told with precision, grace and suspense. The short chapters are well taken in small bites, the better to savor and digest. Read this at the beach, scan the ocean and consider if we have come very far at all from those creatures that first slithered out of the sea.

C. B. Santore is a freelance writer and editor in Fairfax, Virginia.

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