Among its many bittersweet delights, Amanda Leduc’s The Miracles of Ordinary Men makes me miss Peter Falk. One of Falk’s most unforgettable roles was playing himself – but that self as a lapsed angel – in the haunting 1987 film Wings of Desire. While they take different approaches, both the film and the book turn the tables on a spiritual concept that we perhaps all take for granted: that angels are benevolent celestial beings that look out for us, perhaps intercede between us and our higher being of choice … and are happy to do so, with no troubles, desires, anguish or emotions of their own.
The angels in Wings of Desire feel, but what they feel most is absence, because they observe human beings experiencing frustration, loneliness, pain and love, tasting food and life … and wonder what it would be like to experience that figurative and literal palette of sensations themselves. They have the choice to do that, but only by becoming mortal.
The Miracles of Ordinary Men reverses that process. Mortals become angels, and it is an increasingly excruciating process that Leduc renders with a psychological and physical detail and believability balanced with just enough ambiguity that a reader can perceive it as literally, clinically or symbolically as suits one’s perspective. Like Peter Falk, only a chosen few in The Miracles of Ordinary Men can see and even begin to comprehend the angels or angels-in-the-making before them.
Leduc is never heavy handed about what anyone’s form of belief or source of hope might be. She wisely posits that even the most doubtful or agnostic want something to turn to, and it is brave to acknowledge that desire, even if succumbing to it won’t necessarily achieve anything. This exchange captures it aptly and beautifully:
“People always want to pray when they’re down. It’s the easiest thing in the world.”
“I don’t think so. I think it’s the hardest thing anyone can do. Because there’s a part of you that always knows nothing might happen, that you might just be speaking words into air. And people do it anyway.”
The dual protagonists in the midst of this making of angels are English teacher Sam and executive assistant Lilah, both struggling, fresh from or in the process of suffering personal loss, estrangements and deaths. They are depressed, distraught and punishing themselves for those losses in different and some cases very overt fashion. It isn’t really a spoiler to note that their stories are quietly, elegantly constructed to intersect.
Even at its most troubling, the tone of The Miracles of Ordinary Men is almost determinedly evenhanded. Even at its most violent, the story and how it is told is essentially, if inexplicably gentle, always reaching for comfort and solace. As their stories accelerate and inevitably tilt towards each other and some kind of conclusion, Sam and Lilah both experience a falling away, a dispensing with, a distillation that holds the reader’s attention to the very last page. Is it the flat affect of shell shocked survivors, or the preternatural serenity of those who know something better is coming?
The Miracles of Ordinary Men is a book you’ll want to revisit and from which you could derive an entirely different but equally rich, redeeming and satisfying interpretation each time.