MAYBE A MIRACLE
By Brian Strause
Ballantine. 354 pp. $21.95
Monroe Anderson sneaks down to the family pool house to get high on the night of his senior prom and finds his younger sister, Annika, unconscious in the water. He dives in, rescues her and manages to restore her breathing. But Annika remains comatose as the rest of this serio-comical novel unfolds. Miracles seem to materialize around her: the face of Jesus in a rust stain, a rain of rose petals, stigmata on her hands. Monroe's mother begins seeing her daughter as the personal messenger of Jesus Christ; family dynamics strain, unravel and ravel up again, and Monroe struggles to understand what's happening.
Since Monroe Anderson is a disaffected teenage boy, comparisons with Holden Caulfield in The Catcher in the Rye -- like the one appearing on the book's back cover -- are as inevitable as they are misplaced. Monroe is nothing like Holden. He's less troubled and less self-righteous. And, more important, he doesn't really sound young and vulnerable. Sure, he alludes to being insecure, but I didn't feel the profound uncertainty of a teenager in search of his identity.
Still, Monroe is clever and quizzical. His observations are often funny, and he's a keen and self-aware observer of contemporary American life. Brian Strause's writing overall is clean and skilled, and the dialogue is believable. But none of the characters other than Monroe really comes to life. Even Annika feels more like a collection of comments and tics than a person. Monroe's older brother, Ben, is a champion golfer and a drunk who delights in thinking up sadistic tricks to torment Monroe. Their father is an obsessive lawyer. Monroe's mother deals with her grief by committing herself to what she sees as Annika's sacred mission: healing the world. As she and the local priest encourage publicity and as hordes of seekers -- many of them desperately ill -- visit Annika's bedside, she becomes more and more conventionally devout. Yet this is the woman who, according to her son, once described a mall as "architectural vomit." We'd like to understand the process by which someone this interesting fell so far into dogma, but the book doesn't explain it.
Monroe himself does not believe in Annika's miracles, and his comments on the church are caustic. Through much of the novel, I wondered if the author himself is a believer. Would there be a weepy conversion scene at some point or a treacly revelation? Luckily, Strause is too intelligent to set sail in those waters. He unfurls his miracles, has Monroe think up rational explanations for them -- some more convincing than others -- and leaves readers to their own conclusions.
But the climax, when it comes, is oddly disappointing. A person in a coma presents compelling literary possibilities: a swirl of life around a silent figure simultaneously absent and present. Monroe, his family, their friends and acquaintances all argue intermittently about what Annika wants, how she feels and whether the attention of her thousands of followers causes her joy or pain. The religious shenanigans taking place around her bed provide some of the most vivid moments of the book. But there's something else we want: to know what happens in the human mind when the body housing it is trapped and stilled. This is what fascinates about Jean-Dominique Bauby's The Diving Bell and the Butterfly, an account of the writer's thoughts during the fatal illness that immobilized him. This dimension is explored only cursorily in Maybe a Miracle.
Nonetheless, there are pleasing elements here. Monroe's attempts to reconcile himself to the irreconcilable lead him into a relationship with a woman whose little sister was brutally murdered and who somehow managed to maintain her sanity even while her mother fell to pieces. The novel balances the peace Monroe's mother brought to dozens of sick people against the damage her actions may have caused Annika, and it has the grace to leave such ultimate questions unanswered. *
Juliet Wittman is the author of "Breast Cancer Journal: A Century of Petals."