The Hippo


May 31, 2020








Anatomy of a Miracle, by Jonathan Miles
(Hogarth, 353 pages)


Novels aren’t written by algorithm — yet — although sometimes they feel as though they are. 
Punch in a winsome yet flawed protagonist, an icy antagonist, a redemptive arc and a shocking plot twist, and out comes a narrative that is technically fine but sometimes a little too familiar.
Meet the antidote, Jonathan Miles, possibly the only former New York Times writer to invite readers to “holler” at him on his website. 
Miles’ Anatomy of a Miracle is so fresh, so startling, that it feels like a hoax; no way is this strange story fiction. But that is the point: It’s written as a piece of long-form journalism, in present tense, yet after the events that transpired when a beer-swilling, paralyzed veteran suddenly gets out of his wheelchair outside a convenience store in Biloxi, Mississippi.
Before the miracle transpires, Cameron Harris is living a Sergeant Dan sort of life, without the benefit of a Forrest Gump. Once a promising high school athlete, he joined the Army after being leveled by his mother’s death and, soon after, Hurricane Katrina. After coming home from Afghanistan a paraplegic, his pleasures have been reduced to television, cigarettes and beer, and an afternoon run to a convenience store with his caregiver sister.
Like the word “Coke” stands in for any sort of soft drink in the South, a “miracle,” Miles writes, can be any sort of strange occurrence.  A true miracle — performed by God at the individual’s behest — is a Coca-Cola, the real thing, whereas Cameron decides his “miracle” is more a Dr Pepper, “an astonishment of chance.” 
He rejects the idea that his paralysis had been some kind of test: “Nothing Cameron had done since returning from Afghanistan seemed to qualify for a passing grade, unless he counted not killing himself — but all that should have earned him is a participation trophy.”
Cameron’s doctor, too, is skeptical of God’s hand in what happened: A “miracle,” she believes, is “an event that happens in advance of an explanation for it.”
But others, including a man with liver cancer who walks for 37 hours to stand outside the convenience store holding a giant inflatable cross, and a local Catholic priest, discern divinity in what happened. And a reality-show producer in Hollywood smells money.
The priest commences a Vatican investigation in order to have Cameron’s healing deemed an official miracle, and the producer gets a contract for a show that features not just Cameron but his rough-around-the-edges sister. Meanwhile, the Vietnamese owners of the convenience store, the Biz-E-Bee, come to recognize that what happened on their property was not an annoyance but a business opportunity as earnest pilgrims seeking God — or at least a piece of mail with Biz-E-Bee stamped on it — journey to see where “Mr. Jesus” performed his latest miracle.
All this makes for fine comedy and drama — and yes, there is the inevitable plot twist — but it’s the skillful weaving of the story as a journalist would write it that makes Anatomy of a Miracle such a pleasure.  Plus, Miles, despite having written the “Shaken and Stirred” column for The New York Times, knows Mississippi, “swampy-ass” heat and all, like Faulkner. He attended college there, found a mentor in Larry Brown, and lived, Waldenesque, in a 12x30-foot cabin while learning to write fiction. Both his previous novels Want Not and Dear American Airlines won critical acclaim.
Reviewing Dear American Airlines in The New York Times in 2008, Richard Russo wrote, “Ah, but the digressions! Not every reader will love them as I did.”  Miles apparently took that as license to digress even more; in fact, a quarter of Anatomy of a Miracle could comprise digressions, some more entertaining than others — for example, Miles’ description of an elderly woman who survived Katrina atop a floating refrigerator and now spends most of her days crocheting on the front porch, waving at everyone who drives or walks by. 
“As Cameron says: “It’s like our street’s got its own Walmart greeter’,” Miles writes.
Less compelling is a lengthy backstory about the family of Dr. Janice Lorimar-Cuevas, Cameron’s physician, who refuses to be thrown in with the lot of the “miracle thumpers.”
While the framework of the novel is darkly comic, Anatomy of a Miracle is ultimately a book with serious themes, as foreshadowed in Janice’s musings about the injured veterans she has treated. 
“Some of these guys charge back hard against their injuries…. Others, like Cameron, just crumple. Now that Janice considered it, he seemed as afflicted by something like heartbreak as much as by paralysis — as if he’d lost something even more precious than his mobility over in Afghanistan.”
As Miles wrote of married couples who “argue about the leaves when it’s the roots they’re angry about,” there’s a lot going on that hides underground for much of the book. This novel is not, as Yann Martel’s Life of Pi promised, a “story to make you believe in God,” but rather a story to make you think about truth. A- 
— Jennifer Graham 

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