The Barnes & Noble Review
The "everyday people" of Stewart O'Nan's luminous new novel are the
beleaguered residents of a fictitious, predominantly black Pittsburgh
community known as East Liberty. With wit, precision, and imaginative
empathy, O'Nan shows us the hidden essence of this archetypal American city
and successfully illuminates the inner lives of a dozen closely observed
Dominating this collage of shifting perspectives is 18-year-old
Chris "Crest" Tolbert, a graffiti artist left paralyzed by a recent fall from a
highway overpass. As Chris struggles to adjust to his newly circumscribed
life, he meditates on the death of a friend and fellow artist; attempts to
reconnect with Vanessa Owens, the mother of his infant son; and makes his
way, with infinite difficulty, toward a renewed sense of purpose. Chris is
surrounded by a gallery of characters -- family, friends, neighbors, and
strangers -- facing comparable difficulties of their own.
Chris's father, Albert Tolbert, falls hopelessly in love with a younger
man, and that hidden relationship strains his marriage to the breaking point.
Eugene, Chris's born-again older brother, tries -- and fails -- to save the
life of a lost, embittered boy. An elderly neighbor loses both of her
grandsons to the ongoing epidemic of urban violence. The local ice cream man
watches helplessly while a teenage customer -- a boy he has watched grow up -- steals his truck. And Vanessa Owens, a waitress and single mother with a newly awakened interest in African-American history, finally learns the true identity of the father she has never known. As Vanessa discovers during the course of this novel, everyone has a story, a private history hidden from general view.
Like all first-rate novels, Everyday People is many things at once: a precisely detailed portrait of a modern urban war zone, a meditation on the interrelationship of memory and art, and an extended reflection on the
inevitability of loss. It is also -- like O'Nan's previous novel, A Prayer for the Dying -- an account of ordinary people tested by extraordinary events. Faced with a succession of large and small tragedies, O'Nan's characters struggle to maintain a bedrock belief in something, whether it be art, music, family, history, love, politics, or religion. As Chris's weary, long-suffering mother observes in the closing pages, "Tragedies...come and go. Only faith stay[s] the same." In Everyday People, O'Nan acknowledges both the tragic dimension of his characters' lives and the stubborn nobility of their constant search for a sustaining form of faith. The result is a moving, quietly audacious novel that reaffirms O'Nan's position as one of the best, most unpredictable writers to emerge in America in recent years.
Bill Sheehan reviews horror, suspense, and science fiction for Cemetery Dance, The New York Review of Science Fiction, and other publications. His book-length critical study of the fiction of Peter Straub, At the Foot of the Story Tree, has been published by Subterranean Press (www.subterraneanpress.com).
Read an Excerpt
EAST LIBERTY DOESN'T need the Martin Robinson Express Busway. It's for the commuters who come in every day from Penn Hills and sit in front, hiding behind their Post-Gazettes, their briefcases balanced across their knees. When you get on, their eyes brush up against you, then dart off like scared little fish. They might notice your suit is just as fine as theirsprobably even more stylingbut then they look away, and you aren't there anymore. No one saying a mumbling word. Seats all taken like they got on in twos, driver switched them in like a herd of turkeys can't think a lick for themselves. Goddamn. 1998, and you're back in the back of the bus, seats underneath you hot from the big diesel, lump of nasty duct tape grabbing at your slacks.
What East Liberty wanted was a new community center with a clinic. The old one's small and falling apart and just lost its funding. What we need is a good clean place to take the babies, some after-school programs for the young people. But that got voted down in city council. The ballots fell by color lines, paper saidnot a surprise, especially the way they said it. A Black thing, all your fault, like you were asking for something no one else has. It was predictable, that's the sad thing; even the good Jewish liberals in Squirrel Hill are pinching their pennies these days. Taxes this and welfare that, like they gonna starve or something. Let's not even talk about them simple crackers out past that.
There still had to be some way to get some money into the community. Thatmust have been what Martin Robinson was thinking. You voted for himhave your whole lifeso who are you supposed to blame? And the money would come in. Half the contracts were supposed to go to local businesses, and Martin made sure that happened. That's the good news.
The bad news is that the Martin Robinson Express Busway basically stops all trafficwhite and black and otherwisefrom coming through the business district. The way the city council and their planners drew up the project, the busway effectively cuts East Liberty off from the rest of Pittsburgh. State money but they made a deal, took his own bill out of Martin's hands. Two busy bridges had to go (crowds gathered to count down the perfect explosions), and South Highland had to be rerouted around the business district (meaning the dead Sears there, you understand). So if you ever wanted whitefolks to leave you alone, you ought to be happy now.
Probably would be if it wasn't for the money. And the services too, you know. It'll take that much longer for an ambulance to get over here, and you think that's a mistake? Fire engine, police when you need them, gas and electric in winter.
And then they name the thing after him. Good man, Martin Robinson, not one of those sorry-ass Al Sharpton, greasy-hair-wearing, no 'count jackleg preachers with five Cadillacs and ten rings on his fingers and twenty lawyers playing games. Martin's got thirty years in the state house, might be the best man to come out of East Liberty, definitely the one who's done the most for the people. Come up on Spofford, regular people, raised right. You ask Miss Fisk, she'll tell you. Old Mayor Barr who called out the Guard on us in '67, he got a tunnel named after him, and Dick Caligiuri, the poor man who died of that terrible disease, he got the county courthouse. Martin Robinson deserves the new stadium, or maybe that community center we need, something positive, not some raggedy-ass busway. It's plain disrespectful.
Thing has been bad luck from the jump. Martin passed this bill so they had to build walkways over top it so the kids can still get to the park. City council said they had to be covered so no one could throw nothing at the busesconcrete blocks or whatever. While they were building them, at night the kids would climb up there and spraypaint their names. It was a game with them. I'm not saying it's right, but kids will do that kind of mess, that's just the way they are. What happens is one night these two youngbloods get up there in the dark and everything half built and something goes wrong, way wrong, and it ends up they fall off, right smack down in the middle of the busway, and one of them dies. Miss Fisk's grandson, it was, so it hit everybody the way something like that does. Seventeen years old. Other child ends up in a wheelchair, for life they say. Another young black prince. Just a little blip in the paper, not even on TV.
And that's nobody's fault, I'm not saying that, but damn, it seems like that kind of thing happens around here all the time. Here's two kids who just needed a place to do their thing, and we don't get that, so there they go doing something foolish and it all turns out wrong.
I don't know, I just don't see the dedication of this busway as something to celebrate. I understand everyone wants to represent, you know, and show love for Martin. I got more love for Martin than anybody, but all this drama, I don't know. The thing's a month away. It's like those people get all excited about Christmas when it's not even Halloween.
I understand. It's a big day for East Liberty, all the TV stations will be here. Put a good face on. I'll be there, you know I will, cuz, but I'm just being straight with you, it's not all gravy, this thing. Everything comes with a price, and too many times that price is us. I'm getting real tired of paying it, know what I'm saying?