John Brandon explores new territory in 'A Million Heavens'

If it's Wednesday in a John Brandon novel, there must be a flock of people in some stagnant backwater community who are all itching to get the hell out, and maybe kill someone in the process. After all, there was the crime spree in "Arkansas" (2008), the kidnapping in "Citrus County" (2010) and in both, all those restless characters, clawing their destinies out of thin air.

At first, his third book lays out a similarly eerie scenario, in a combination of settings just as desolate: a broken-down desert town in New Mexico called Lofte, the ghostly upper floor of an Albuquerque clinic, and a Twilight Zonelike anteroom in the afterlife containing "an ancient and well kept" piano and a dead musician named Reggie.

In its opening pages, a lone wolf, making the rounds of his old haunts, circles ever closer to a group of humans sitting in a hospital parking lot who "seem lost to the world." Six floors above them, a little boy lies unconscious, kept watch over by his father.

The vigilers show up each Wednesday to pay silent tribute to the boy, Soren, who lapsed into a coma during his first piano lesson, but not before playing a "sixteen-second" piece that has convinced the world of his genius.

Welcome to "A Million Heavens," where the boundaries between the living and the nearly — and newly — dead have all but disappeared. It should be surreal and creepy, yet Brandon, an old hand at setting up and populating American purgatories, presents a handful of lost souls no more lost than we are.

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One-by-one, he introduces the extensive constellation of characters who are drawn into Soren's orbit: Cecelia, a guitarist grieving the death of her band's songwriter; Dannie, a researcher from L.A.; the mayor of Lofte, who watches helplessly as his doomed town sinks into its own coma; a gas station owner planning an trial by fire he's afraid to take; a foster kid who's bounced all over the country; a woman who sits all day long in her deceased sister's wheelchair; and of course, "Soren's father," whose name we never learn. Some of the cast appear frequently; others, only once.

Even Reggie is stubbornly human, angry at being manipulated by heavenly forces, refusing to play the ghostly instruments at hand or be affected by the reappearing relics of his past: a belt buckle, his father's bureau, an old piano recital program, a guitar. "Someone wanted him to indulge so he was refusing. He wanted to think about what he wanted to think about."

But gradually, he gives in — at least to the instruments — and begins to compose songs that filter into his former band mate's consciousness: "Cecelia had had songs stuck in her head before, but these notes were way inside, like trace amounts of lovely poison."

Reggie despises artifice: "Talent was perfectly meaningless," he observes. "He needed to write a song that laid the cards on the table with no cleverness. Not write it, just deliver it ... He needed to bring forth a song that wouldn't get in the way of itself, a song devoid of style."

In other words, a little like "A Million Heavens," a book that practically shouts from the rooftops its refusal to put on airs, its desire to strip down the prose and get out of its own way.

Brandon's unadorned style and disdain for anything "fancy" belie what a good (and sometimes fancy) writer he is, as well as how much he loves playing with the reader's expectations, interrupting and upending traditional elements of the novel even as he claims to want to be the deliverer rather than the composer.

The tension of the novel emerges from just this kind of expert juggling of metafiction and dirty realism. Clues as big as tumbleweeds hint that life and art are intertwined, some of which showcase Brandon's trademark deadpan humor: The group Cecelia's remaining band mate starts after Reggie's death is called Thus Poke Sarah's Thruster. The mayor watches a horror movie where a psychotic mayor "slaughtered all the new people who moved to his town."

Plenty of spiritual trials take place in "A Million Heavens," from the gas station owner's 40-days-and-nights in the desert to the wolf's saintly extremism, battling his instincts to subsist "on nothing but butterflies, snapped from the wind and swallowed in fluttery gulps." But no one gets killed, or maimed, or buried alive in a box.

It's not crime or mayhem that ties Brandon's motley desert community together, but music: The piano Soren played becomes the piano in Reggie's miragelike afterlife, the songs Reggie writes are transmitted to Cecelia through her dreams, the wolf, drawn to her singing, hides beneath her bedroom window to listen.

"A million people scuffling around the desert," Brandon writes, hoped "not to see their heaven too soon, failing to believe in the afterlives that awaited them and would have them in time, whether they kicked and screamed or closed their eyes and sighed, whether they tried to do good and could not or tried to do bad and succeeded."

In the end, despite all the kicking and screaming, the racket has quieted to where they can hear the subtle notes that connect them, joining all the heavenly dots together.

"A Million Heavens"

John Brandon

McSweeney's Rectangulars, $24, 272 pages

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