Credit Rui Tenreiro
ANATOMY OF A MIRACLE
The True Story of a Paralyzed Veteran, a Mississippi Convenience Store, a Vatican Investigation, and the Spectacular Perils of Grace
By Jonathan Miles
355 pp. Hogarth. $27.
For as long as novels have existed, they have disguised themselves as something other than novels. “Don Quixote” — the book most often credited with inventing the genre — purported to be a work of history translated from Arabic into Spanish by a Moor named Cide Hamete Benengeli. The early English realists presented their books not as fictional prose narratives but as journals, collections of letters and other found documents. Some authors have used this pretense ironically, to emphasize the fictional nature of the proceedings (see “Lolita,” a prison cell confession complete with diagnostic foreword and names changed to protect the innocent), while others have borrowed nonfiction forms to give otherwise improbable events the urgency of fact (see “The Plot Against America,” an earnest memoir of childhood during the Lindbergh administration).
Jonathan Miles’s much-celebrated first novel, “Dear American Airlines,” took the shape of a 200-page letter to the titular carrier, composed during an extended delay at O’Hare. After a more formally conventional second novel, Miles has returned to the imitation game with “Anatomy of a Miracle.” A tagline on the cover allows that the book is, indeed, a novel, but everything that follows is designed to mimic a work of New Journalism’s narrative reportage, beginning with a pitch-perfect evocation of the wordy expository subtitle such books carry, continuing through a “note on methodology” assuring readers that “the scenes and dialogue contained herein were reconstructed from the recollections of participants,” and concluding with the obligatory acknowledgments page, where the author thanks the novel’s characters. Miles’s commitment to this conceit is admirable, but his ultimate intentions are somewhat unclear. Where “Dear American Airlines” fell squarely in the winking, Nabokovian mode, “Anatomy of a Miracle” more or less asks to be read straight — a striking demand given that the story it recounts is quite literally incredible.
The miracle of the title occurs in the book’s opening pages, when Cameron Harris, an Army veteran paralyzed from the waist down, stands up from his wheelchair outside the Biz-E-Bee convenience store in Biloxi, Miss. Miles traces the ramifications of this act for Cameron and a host of other characters in a documentary style that goes well beyond the occasional parenthetical admission that one fact or another “remains a contested point.” The conceits of creative nonfiction seep into nearly every sentence. We are dutifully told that the word “miracle” has its origins in the Latin noun miraculum, an object of wonder, and that C. S. Lewis defined one as “an interference with Nature by supernatural power.” Cameron’s hometown is introduced with a potted history that includes a quote from the very real memoir of a local reporter, and we learn that Gallup has judged Mississippi to be “the most religious state” in the Union. The skepticism of a rationalist Veterans Affairs doctor is contextualized with a poll, “commissioned by the Jewish Theological Seminary in New York City,” indicating that “roughly three quarters of doctors believe in miracles.”
Because the genre that Miles is aping applies fiction’s methods to real-life stories, “Anatomy of a Miracle” offers the Victor-Victoria frisson of watching a novel impersonate a work of journalism impersonating a novel. It’s a difficult balancing act that Miles for the most part pulls off, and his book is best appreciated as a highly entertaining literary performance. Of course, such faithful reproduction has inherent risks, which he doesn’t entirely escape. “Saturated with unrelentingly grim headlines,” goes one typical sentence, “the summer of 2014 was proving ‘an anxious and depressing muddle,’ as The New Yorker’s George Packer characterized it.” A reader can admire the realism here — this is, indeed, just the sort of shoddy scaffolding that too often fills out such books — without wanting much more of it.
Luckily, Miles’s writing has many compensatory virtues. One of them is broad humor. (After the Biz-E-Bee attempts to cash in on Cameron’s recovery, a Yelp reviewer describes it as “a Cracker Barrel at Lourdes.”) Another is compassion. Miles specializes in giving fully rounded humanity to characters who might elsewhere be treated as stock figures — the pious nonagenarian who lives across the street, the sports-car-driving Vatican operator charged with verifying the miracle, the cynical reality television producer looking to get rich off it. Far and away the most compelling of these characters is Cameron Harris himself. As a young boy, he is drawn to acting and making camcorder movies, but he winds up on the high school football team after one of his mother’s boyfriends worries about his “manliness.” He excels at the sport and is on his way to a college scholarship when his mother dies and he abruptly quits the team. He enlists and heads to Afghanistan, where he is on foot patrol with his superior officer when the two men drift inexplicably from their assigned station and the officer steps on an old Soviet mine, blowing off his own legs and sending shrapnel into Cameron’s spine.