Anatomy of a Miracle
Hogarth, 351 pp, $27
There are many mysteries in life. Some aren’t too grandiose: How come parrots can talk? Other questions are bigger in scope: Is God real? Where do we go when we die? In order to answer questions of this sort, it is sometimes necessary to explore the realms of intellect and miracle—or maybe to at least suspend disbelief. In Jonathan Miles’ new novel, Anatomy of a Miracle, the opening chapter follows a paralyzed Afghanistan war veteran as his sister, Tanya, wheels him down to their neighborhood convenience store, the Biz-E-Bee. Parked in his wheelchair and awaiting the arrival of his much adored cigarettes and beer, Cameron suddenly gets a strange urge. He rises and walks across the parking lot for the first time in four years. Is this a miracle, or a medical misdiagnosis? No one is more surprised by this change in circumstance than Cameron, who begins to ask important questions of the people around him in order to solve the mystery of why he finds himself ambulatory after four years in a wheelchair.
On the front cover of the book, there are wheel and shoe prints that lead to the statement “This is a true story” on the back cover; indeed, Miles has written a narrative that reads like nonfiction. He even goes so far as to thank the characters in the acknowledgements as if they are people in real life, and offers both an epilogue and afterword to tidy up any dangling questions. This is a device that might leave a reader skeptical, but at the hand of this adroit author, the characters introduced and events that ensue after Cameron’s walk of fame are entirely believable. And fame is what comes a-knocking to the town of Biloxi, Mississippi.
Cameron and Tanya are immediately thrust into the spotlight as word spreads that a miracle took place in the parking lot of the Biz-E-Bee. Along for the ride are Hat, Quỳnh, and Little Kim, the Vietnamese family that both owns and resides at the store. The store becomes a mecca for those searching for their own version of a miracle, which provides a windfall for the struggling family as the hordes purchase drinks and knick-knacks of the miracle variety.
The local priest is dispatched to speak with Cameron and Tanya regarding any particular prayers they were performing before the miracle took place. The clergyman prods, “I’m curious if you might have prayed to a saint?” Even if it was a miracle, inquiring minds want more information about how exactly it happened.
Cameron’s VA doctor, Janice, is tasked with determining what physically happened, and it becomes evident that doctors commonly work in the realm of mystery as well:
“We know a lot about the body and how it works, but we don’t know everything. There’s a number of medical conditions we just don’t understand yet. We call those idiopathic conditions. And then there are conditions we sort of understand but not really. What I’m saying is I wish I could explain what happened to you, but I can’t. But we’re going to test the hell out of you today, okay? Because I want to know the reason you’re walking as much as you do. Maybe even more, because whatever your body did, other bodies should be able to do the same thing.”
Where there is intrigue and family drama there is also a desire to capitalize on it; and in the era of reality television, that’s the way this story goes. In walks Los Angeles television producer Scott T. Griffin, who convinces Cameron and Tanya to join the ranks of stardom, and the show Miracle Man is born. Sadly, this turn is so plausible that the trickery of Miles’ fiction vs. nonfiction experiment comes to life through the lens of a camera. Every word and step Cameron takes is now under the gaze and, ultimately, instruction of the production crew.
The Catholic Church is the only major religious organization in the business of verifying miracles. When a miracle is claimed, the Vatican has specific protocols for investigating and authenticating it. Enter Euclide Gianni Abbascia, a debonair, Maserati-driving former Roman prosecutor who investigates miracles for the Church. He sets to the task of sniffing out the truth of what happened to Cameron and uncovers surprises along the way. Not surprising, however, is the fact that he sees his job mostly in the realm of disproving the miracles people want to so badly believe exist.
There is a point in the story when the layers of complexity seem about to overwhelm, but isn’t that the truth of life? People are multilayered and complicated. There are always questions to be answered, and sometimes the answers can’t seem to be found wholly in the scientific or the spiritual realm. This book is many things: About two-thirds in there’s a twist and it becomes a love story—but to speak of the nature of this love would ruin the pleasure you will experience from reading the novel. It’s suffice to say that love can be found in the strangest of places, including war-torn countries. Perhaps that is the biggest miracle of them all.
Emily Fine is a lifelong reader and the co-host of the podcast Book Cougars: Two Middle-Age Women on the Hunt for a Good Read. When not engaged in the world of books or embarking on literary adventures, she spends her time as a Philanthropic Consultant and Grant Writer. Originally from the Midwest, Emily now lives just a train ride away from her favorite city: New York.