cover image Everyday People

Everyday People

Stewart O'Nan. Grove/Atlantic, $24 (192pp) ISBN 978-0-8021-1681-9

The protean O'Nan seems determined to touch nearly every facet of human experience in a remarkable variety of times and places. In such brilliant novels as Snow Angel and A Prayer for the Dying, he's created distinctive, almost palpable worlds rich in moral complexities. But while his apparent purpose in writing this new novel (after the nonfiction The Circus Fire) is commendable, this story of African-Americans victimized by poverty and racial bias does not develop the mesmerizing narrative tension that distinguishes his previous work. The characters whose intertwined lives are presented in short chapters are residents of a declining African-American community near Pittsburgh, where drug use offers escape from teenage boredom and a lack of job opportunities; gang wars and violent crime inevitably follow. O'Nan's empathy for his characters conveys their sense of frustration and powerlessness, the restlessness of teenagers and the older generations' stoic dignity. Each character exists in a state of grief. At 18, Chris ""Crest"" Tolbert is trying to adjust to life in a wheelchair, from an accident in which he and his best buddy, Bean, fell off a thruway overpass while drawing graffiti. Bean died, and his grandmother, Miss Fisk, is admired by the community for her Job-like endurance. Chris's father is hiding a homosexual love for a younger man; his older brother accepted religion in prison and is striving to keep others from going down the path he followed. Nobody is innately bad; each is a victim of the system or of life's ironies. O'Nan's sensitive portraits of these people plumbs the depths of their longings for a decent break but, oddly for this always intense author, the narrative lacks vitality. Earnest, even heartfelt, the novel seems studied and its plot too obviously charted. Still, O'Nan gets the voices just right, especially the homeboy argot and casual obscenities, and flashes of fine writing redeem this admirable but disappointing effort by an outstanding writer. Agent, David Gernert. (Feb.)