Reggie Mercer, a prototypically befuddled resident of John Brandon’s lilting and hilarious third novel, “A Million Heavens,” is stuck. A visionary songwriter-musician whose promise has crashed, quite literally, at the raw age of 20, Reggie idles in a vast room whose contents are forever morphing with resistible temptations and detritus from his brief past: beloved instruments he cannot bring himself to play, a library of books that remain unread, a bar stocked with liquor that goes untouched. All Reggie can do is wait. Waiting is what one does in purgatory. Reggie, as it happens, is dead.
The others in Brandon’s coiling ensemble piece, made up of short chapters focusing on specific characters, are pretty much alive (albeit, in one instance, comatose), but like Reggie are locked in a holding pattern, figuring out their next move or refusing to engage. Circumstances have pulled them off course and, like stray children who hope to be found if they just stay in one place, they hold fast to old behaviors and expectations.
Not one to cling to trusted territory (his unnerving second novel, “Citrus County,” evoked rural Florida), Brandon shifts his gaze here to the the arid environs of Albuquerque. “A Million Heavens” is also something of a genre-buster: in alternating beats a bittersweet comedy about the law of inertia and a plaintive serial-killer thriller on the laws of the wild. The roving murderer, you see, is a wolf.
All of Brandon’s characters, wolf included, are perhaps two, at most four, degrees of separation from Reggie, an accident victim, and Soren, a boy whose genius was stilled by a coma during his first piano lesson. His inexplicable condition has become a lightning rod, if not avoidance mechanism, for a troubled group of well-wishers keeping vigil in the hospital parking lot, to the bemusement of Soren’s lunch-truck operator father.
A MILLION HEAVENS
Prominent among this motley gathering of “vigilers” are Dannie, 33, an expat from Los Angeles pressing the delete button on a failed marriage; Arn, 20, a foster-family survivor by whom Dannie hopes to get pregnant; and Reggie’s former bandmate Cecelia. Suffocated by home life with her mother, a keeper of chickens and watcher of religion TV, Cecelia also tries to waylay a fellow band member who has stolen Reggie’s songs to form a new group.
Were one to map the chain of relationships linking the book’s principals, it might resemble a complex chemical compound. But they resound with jauntily nuanced personalities and resumes. Brandon displays a Studs Terkel-ish regard for the work people do, or try to: Cecelia self-sabotages an audio-visual job for which she is uniquely unqualified; her mayor uncle runs a motel (indifferently); a gas station owner refuses credit cards and spins his wheels scrubbing the bathrooms. Like the luckless animals picked off by the perpetually prowling wolf because that is what wolves do, these people stumble about with a hard-wired myopia best characterized in Soren’s father, whose “mental state was one of being acutely aware that he was in a fog.”
Brandon paints their New Mexico landscape with a neo-noir-ish lyricism: “It was the time of night — too late even for the night owls and not yet early enough for anyone else — where several minutes could pass without a car and the cars that did appear were probably on the road because of bad news.” Night or day, the crisscrossing roads of “A Million Heavens” bustle with luminous prose that carries only good news for lovers of original fiction.