A WOLF IS ONE of the many protagonists in the new John Brandon novel, A Million Heavens. It's a surprising turn from Brandon, a young master of gritty, funny, uncomfortably human Americana. His first two novels, Arkansas and Citrus County, are real, almost mean stories of rootless criminals and delinquents, human beings with deep faults and sad, moving attempts at redemption.
The brilliant thing about A Million Heavens is the way it juggles humanity, wilderness, and a new element for Brandon—the supernatural. One of the protagonists is a wolf, yes, but one of the others (there are at least eight) is a dead man idly writing love songs from an inscrutable afterlife. It's the effect of those songs, mystically transmitted to the world, that holds the disparate strands of the novel together.
The other protagonists are the kind of broken humans Brandon writes well: a college student struggling with loss; the mayor of a failing town; a runaway divorcee; a stoic semi-adult orphan; a proud gas station owner; and the father of a possibly miraculous boy in a coma. It's a lot to take in, a lot of different colored paint. Luckily, Brandon's canvas is the wide, unchanging New Mexico desert, and its boundlessness allows an easy fluidity.
The wolf also ties the characters together. It's his view that illuminates the awkward futility of human action. The wolf is old and losing his mind, abandoning his instincts and chewing his forelegs raw. "There was a hunger in the wolf that was also a desire to starve," and the more he learns about love and art, right and wrong, the more dangerous he becomes.
The wolf gets the best lines, too. Brandon has a talent for effortlessly turning a distinctly American phrase. For instance, one of the characters recalls an uncle who "drank beer like he was in a commercial." That's a great line, but it's the wolf that describes a defunct meth lab in the desert as "a couple trailer homes rotting into the earth, stinking of science."
These stories move slowly through the inhuman desert. But as the suspense ramps up and some characters seem on the brink of various falls from grace, others are offered redemption so subtly and honestly that you don't realize you're rooting for them. Brandon has always been capable of sweetness and tenderness in his characters, but it seems that planting one foot in the surreal has allowed him a refreshingly earnest sentimentality.