Everyday People

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The New York Times calls Stewart O'Nan "a master of voices and the place they resonate from, of human rhythms and the universal rhythms they cut across." Here, O'Nan captures in heartbreaking detail and embattled black neighborhood in Pittsburgh: A teenaged boy paralyzed while spray-painting graffiti on a bridge; the mother of his child trying to get through college part-time; his brother, recently out of jail...
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Everyday People

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The New York Times calls Stewart O'Nan "a master of voices and the place they resonate from, of human rhythms and the universal rhythms they cut across." Here, O'Nan captures in heartbreaking detail and embattled black neighborhood in Pittsburgh: A teenaged boy paralyzed while spray-painting graffiti on a bridge; the mother of his child trying to get through college part-time; his brother, recently out of jail and newly religious; their father, who harbors a dark secret; the local politician how wonders where he went wrong…

About the Author:
Stewart O'Nan is the author of five previous novels, including the acclaimed A Prayer for the Dying. He lives in Connecticut.

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Editorial Reviews

From Barnes & Noble
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 characters.

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

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).

Publishers Weekly - Publisher's Weekly
Crest Tolbert, 18, was paralyzed and confined to a wheelchair after slipping, along with his best friend, from an overpass he was tagging with graffiti. His friend died from the fall. His father, Harold, is having a homosexual affair, a fact he cannot admit to his family, whom he would leave if it weren't for Crest's condition. His mother is certain that Harold is cheating on her with a younger woman and is torn between setting him free and trying to win him back. Vanessa, Crest's girlfriend and the mother of his son, has enrolled in her first college class and is learning about the rich history of their people. Eugene, his brother, is a reformed gangbanger, a born-again Christian whose mission in life is to save young gang members before they end up in prison. Although this is not one of the brilliant O'Nan's best efforts, Esposito comes through with a brilliant reading of the text. His quickness and ease with street slang and verbal posturing fit the characters perfectly and make listening to this tale of day-to-day struggle a truly engaging experience. Simultaneous release with the Grove hardcover (Forecasts, Nov. 20). (Feb.) Copyright 2001 Cahners Business Information.
Library Journal
O'Nan's depictions of the African American families in East Liberty, a small enclave near Pittsburgh, are startling: the two teenage graffiti artists who fall off a bridge, one killed, the other trapped in a wheelchair; the boy murdered in a turf war; the former gang member who got religion in prison; and the single mother trying to better herself. Additionally, having Giancarlo Esposito to read this book was inspired. The only problem is that, despite all the inherent possibilities for drama, listeners are left with mere description. For more than two tapes, the words simply drift past, floating from one character to the next, interesting but never engrossing. Finally, on the second side of tape three, the narrative asserts itself, and we begin to follow changes in the characters' interactions, even if transitions from one scene to the next are often muddled. This reviewer was left questioning the abridgment; descriptions of Vanessa's college class, for example, which don't further the tale, could easily have been omitted. As it stands, with its extremely pat conclusion, this audiobook has little to recommend it. Rochelle Ratner, formerly with "Soho Weekly News,"New York Copyright 2001 Cahners Business Information.
Kirkus Reviews
O'Nan's aptly titled sixth novel explores a Pittsburgh neighborhood with the same nonjudgmental empathy and respect for ordinary folks already evident in his first, Snow Angels (1994). People in East Liberty have very mixed feelings about the Martin Robinson Express Busway. It will supposedly bring jobs, and it's named after a black congressman who's done a lot for the community, but it'll also cut off the African-American area from the rest of Pittsburgh. Moreover, it was the scene of a bad accident before it even opened. Spray-painting an unfinished walkway, two teenaged graffiti artists fell: Bean was killed, and his friend Crest was paralyzed. Crest is one of the central characters in a narrative that roves through East Liberty to weave individual memories and dreams into a collective portrait. Crest's father, Harold, struggles to get over an affair with a younger man, while wife Jackie seethes. Older brother Eugene, recently out of prison and newly religious, is trying to build a life without drugs or violence, though he fails to save his junkie friend, Nene, or Nene's angry younger brother. Vanessa, who broke up with Crest shortly before the accident, raises their son and holds down a job while taking a college course on African-American culture more out of a sense of duty than any burning interest. Crest, though never a good student, has a stronger sense of his heritage; he plans to portray members of the community and other blacks who have given their lives for their people in a painting that ultimately becomes the author's moving symbol of art's power to celebrate the spirit of those society prefers to ignore. Although O'Nan limns Crest's consciousness in the hip-hoprhythmsof young urban black speech, he chronicles other characters' thoughts in more conventional language, emphasizing the variety of African-American lives and the similarity of their aspirations to those of any other ethnic group. Quietly passionate, imbued with a subtle understanding of how the personal and political intertwine: another fine effort from an always-intriguing writer.
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Product Details

  • ISBN-13: 9780802138835
  • Publisher: Grove/Atlantic, Inc.
  • Publication date: 4/28/2002
  • Edition description: 1ST PBK
  • Pages: 304
  • Sales rank: 706,947
  • Product dimensions: 5.58 (w) x 8.26 (h) x 0.78 (d)

Meet the Author

Stewart O'Nan
Stewart O'Nan
In 1996, the literary magazine Granta named Stewart O'Nan one of America's best young novelists -- an honor he has continued to justify in an impressive body of complex and stylistically diverse fiction.


Stewart O'Nan grew up in Pittsburgh, Pennsylvania, addicted to cartoons, horror comics, Tarzan, science fiction, movies, TV, and garage punk. He studied aerospace engineering at Boston University, where he developed more rarified tastes (Camus, Coltrane, and the Beats), along with a lifelong obsession with the Boston Red Sox. After graduation, he worked as a test engineer for Grumman Aerospace in Long Island, devoting every spare moment he could find to writing. Then, with the encouragement of his wife, he enrolled in Cornell University to pursue a master's degree.

By the time O'Nan had finished graduate school, a few of his short stories had begun to attract some attention. He moved his family west and taught at the University of Central Oklahoma and the University of New Mexico. Then, in 1993, he hit pay dirt when his short story collection, In the Walled City, won the Drue Heinz Prize for Short Fiction. A year later, his first novel, Snow Angels, was awarded a Pirate's Alley William Faulkner Prize. Since then, he has gone on to forge a distinguished literary career. A self-described "fiction-writing machine," the multi-award-winning O'Nan averages a book a year. In 1996, Granta named him one of the Twenty Best Young American Novelists.

Although critics try to shoehorn his fiction into the horror genre, O'Nan's writing is far too complex and nuanced to permit such blatant categorization. True, his stories are suffused with trauma and tragedy, and his characters react unpredictably to the stress of terrible events; but the violence in O'Nan's fiction owes as much to Flannery O'Connor as to Stephen King -- two authors he acknowledges as important influences.

In addition to his novels, the prolific O'Nan has written a nonfiction account of the notorious 1944 Hartford Circus Fire. He is also co-author with fellow Bo-Sox fan Stephen King of Faithful, a chronicle of the team's legendary 2004 season.

Good To Know

In our exclusive interview, Stewart O'Nan shared some fun and fascinating facts about himself:

"Growing up, I delivered the Pittsburgh Post-Gazette to David McCullough's, Annie Dillard's and Nathaniel Philbrick's houses. The Philbricks tipped you a dime to put it in their screen door."

"The first novels I read with rapt fascination were Edgar Rice Burroughs's Tarzan series -- coverless, bought for a dime apiece at a Cub Scout rummage sale."

"Back in the early '80s, when I'd just begun to read seriously, I met Doris Lessing at the Kenmore Square Barnes & Noble before her very first game at Fenway Park. She seemed genuinely excited, and apprehensive, as if she might be asked to play."

"The library is still my favorite place in the world."

"I'd rather be reading than doing anything else, including writing."

"I'm an obsessive collector -- coins, books, records, baseball cards."

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    1. Also Known As:
      James Coltrane
    2. Hometown:
      Avon, CT
    1. Date of Birth:
      February 4, 1961
    2. Place of Birth:
      Pittsburgh, PA
    1. Education:
      B.S., Aerospace Engineering, Boston University, 1983; M.F.A., Cornell University, 1992
    2. Website:

Read an Excerpt

Chapter One


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 theirs—probably even more styling—but 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 said—not 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 him—have your whole life—so 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 traffic—white and black and otherwise—from 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 buses—concrete 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?

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Sort by: Showing all of 2 Customer Reviews
  • Anonymous

    Posted February 25, 2001


    With compassion as his bellwether and acute observance as his compass Stewart O'Nan offers an intense story of people thwarted by poverty and racial prejudice. Set in East Liberty, a wasted Pittsburgh community, the novel's action is compressed to one week in the lives of the Tolbert family. An 18-year-old son, Chris, has been paralyzed by a fall from a freeway overpass. This graffiti writing escapade took the life of his best friend. His older brother, who found religion while in prison, is attempting to save another from the ravages of urban violence. While their father, Harold, is drawn to a homosexual relationship with a younger man. Many of their neighbors stoically bear the vicissitudes wrought simply by their birth while longing for a better life. Mr. O'Nan's ear for street patois is true, bringing authenticity to his spare yet compelling dialogue. As evidenced in his latest work, this author remains a master of minimalist prose blessed with maximum talent.

    1 out of 1 people found this review helpful.

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  • Posted June 26, 2011

    A must read for any one from the 'burgh or any hood

    Great book with terrific characters and a plot that is life like

    Was this review helpful? Yes  No   Report this review
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