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 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).