Jason Mott shot into the national spotlight in 2013 with the publication and subsequent television adaptation of his debut novel “The Returned,” in which the dead come back to life and return to their families.
The UNC-Wilmington graduate and 2009 Pushcart Prize nominee, whose prior publications include two collections of poetry, returns this fall with “The Wonder of All Things,” another TV-ready story that blends supernatural elements and folksy small-town life.
The novel opens with disaster: A stunt pilot returns to his hometown of Stone Pilot, N.C., to put on an air show and dies in a fiery crash.
Among the people pulled from the rubble: Ava Campbell, the 13-year-old daughter of the town’s sheriff, and her best friend, a boy named Wash. They are battered and bloodied, and Wash is impaled on a steel rod. Amid the panic, Ava lays her hands on her best friend and heals him.
This very public demonstration cracks open Pandora’s box, and out flows our cast of characters: Ava’s dysfunctional blended family; Wash, his beleaguered grandmother and his deadbeat father; and the masses who converge on tiny Stone Pilot looking for their own miracle healings.
The origins of Ava’s talent are explored via flashback in exchanges between a younger Ava and her mother (who has since committed suicide). These interludes in italics, however, reveal less about her mostly latent healing power and more about her relationship with her deeply troubled mother, set against the backdrop of the natural world.
Mott’s exploration of the mother-daughter relationship is markedly more introspective than his treatment of the rest of the characters, which are hastily drawn at best. The frustrated small-town sheriff, the pregnant stepmother, the town doctor and the harried grandmother are all window dressing. They have potential to be interesting, but Mott stops short of infusing them with more than the most predictable character qualities.
Slightly more interesting are the charismatic televangelist and his intellectually challenged younger brother, who arrive in Stone Pilot together with competing purposes. The preacher approaches Ava’s family in the guise of offering counsel; his brother, modeled at least partly on Lenny from “Of Mice and Men,” guilelessly (but still somewhat frighteningly) appeals directly to Ava to “fix” him.
Everyone seems to want Ava to fix them – even her own stepmother, who along with her father, tries but fails to shield her from the massive public reaction. She asks her for help – for herself and her unborn baby – even as she sees the crippling physical toll that healing has on Ava.
Alone in lockstep with Ava is Wash, the only clear-headed and loyal figure in a story built on confusion. A fragile, thoughtful boy with his own troubles, Wash is devoted to Ava and serves as a voice of reason in every tense moment.
The story itself is easy to read, but it’s hard to accept. In dialogue, all of the characters sound the same – too eloquent, too profound, too practiced. Without the telltale quirks and nuances that make character ensembles so enjoyable, the effect is not entirely satisfying. It’s hard to feel empathy for anyone but Ava, who is a victim of exploitation in a situation that spiraled out of control from page one.
In tackling family, community and matters of the supernatural, other contemporary novels do a better job – “Sisterland” by Curtis Sittenfeld comes to mind. Where “The Wonder of All Things” succeeds is in its momentum and in the intensely visual events that drive the story.
Michelle Moriarity Witt, a former copy editor for The News & Observer, is a Washington, D.C.-based freelance writer.