CHEERING UP Brandon says his two previous novels are "darker" than the new one — which hinges on a dead college student, a child prodigy in a coma, and several bereaved, inordinately lonely people.
A Million Heavens (McSweeney's), John Brandon's surreal and humane third novel, follows a group of misfit searchers in a New Mexico desert town. Though "people" isn't a strictly accurate term — one of the characters from whose perspective the story is told is a sentient wolf — each being in the novel bears more than its fair share of loneliness.
That's no accident. Although Brandon recently settled with his wife and toddler in St. Paul for a teaching job at Hamline College, he used to lead an itinerant existence. His wife, an occupational therapist, had signed on with a company that moved her every three months. Brandon would find the local temp agency and busy himself with manual labor; while living in Albuquerque, he worked for a paper factory.
"I would take boxes and stack them into pallets and wrap the pallets and make another pallet and wrap it," the Florida native told me in a phone call last week.
He and his wife didn't know a soul. However lonely and repetitive Brandon's days, he got such strange vibes from his surroundings that he knew he would someday write about them.
"There's nothing nearby," he said. "There's this biological feeling that doesn't make sense, a deep-seated feeling in your bones that you're surrounded by the wilderness. You can't go into it; you could die! You're not supposed to be there."
Whenever he writes a novel, Brandon begins with the setting. Arkansas, his 2008 debut, was set in a state that struck him as "a place with no rules." Citrus County (2010), set in the Florida region of the same name, felt to him "like a Petri dish — everything's hot and festering and something bad is going to grow out of it."
As for Albuquerque: "It feels mystical and magical. I just knew there'd be some supernatural goings-on, that the story would have multiple points of view because it seemed like this place where you never really leave, just blow around in a circle."
Although Breaking Bad has made Albuquerque meth central in the American imagination, and Brandon's a fan, he didn't touch the show's central subject in his writing. "Someone writes something so well that I find it hard to imagine taking that subject on," he said. "You don't watch Breaking Bad and then think, 'You know what? I should write about meth in New Mexico!"
Although each of Brandon's books is shaped by where it takes place, that's pretty much where the similarities between A Million Heavens and its predecessors end.
"The first two are darker," Brandon says. That statement should give some indication of just how dark those novels are, since the new one hinges on a dead college student, a child prodigy in a coma, and several bereaved, inordinately lonely people.
"I feel like the characters in the new book are better human beings," he said. Not entirely surprising, considering Brandon has previously written about murderous if ineffective drug dealers (Arkansas) and teenagers who kidnap little girls (Citrus County). And besides, he got burned out on writing about the South. This isn't at all traitorous; though some have labeled Brandon a Southern writer, he doesn't see himself that way.