"Everyday People" by Stewart O'Nan

In a neighborhood on the brink of exile, the author of "Prayer for the Dying" sets a family of criminals, converts, adulterers and saints.

Published February 21, 2001 7:14PM (EST)

It's 1998. The place is East Liberty, a neighborhood about to be cut off from the rest of Pittsburgh by a new expressway. Stewart O'Nan drops his readers into this African-American neighborhood, a community in which the smallest acts have disproportionately large repercussions, for a single week. "Everything comes with a price and too many times, that price is us," says an unnamed Everyman narrator in the opening chapter. "I'm getting real tired of paying it, know what I'm saying?"

At the center of the novel is the Tolbert family. Crest, the younger boy, has just returned from the hospital in a wheelchair, fresh from an accident that claimed the life of his best friend. His older brother, Eugene, has just left jail and found Jesus. Harold, the boys' kind and unassertive father, is in love with a younger man but leaves him, rationalizing that his boys need him more. And Harold's wife, Jackie, senses that something is not right (though she believes his lover to be a younger woman), and is seething with rage that the man she has always trusted has become the kind of man she had sworn she would never tolerate. Meanwhile, Vanessa, the teenage mother of Crest's son, is trying to balance motherhood with the demands of waiting tables and a first, hopeful stab at getting a college education, one credit at a time.

It's a busy week. Over the course of the novel, lovers and families break apart and come together, individuals make decisions that will change their futures and several people end up dead or in jail as the result of a gang-related feud. O'Nan follows each character with sympathy and respect. He gives as much dignity and understanding to the white ice-cream-truck driver (himself a staple of the neighborhood for more than 20 years) who is carjacked as he does to the young, desperate carjacker -- a boy who seems to be hitting out in the dark, hoping he will find some sort of salvation by destroying the world he knows. The characters have the chance to draw themselves and the space they inhabit in chapter-length monologues, although sometimes one person fills in darkness where another sees light, and vice versa.

The result is a deeply satisfying book that reveals the limits to any one person's knowledge of exactly how he or she fits into the story that is his or her life. O'Nan's prose is supple and generous, bending to accommodate his characters as one by one they describe, in their own voices, what it is to be a father, an invalid, a waitress, a teenager consumed with blood lust, a repentant killer. What we are left with is a compelling document of the dangers and mercies of being human.

By Amy Benfer

Amy Benfer is a freelance writer in Brooklyn, N.Y.

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