Stewart O'Nan: a family holds disaster in abeyance

Six May Novels

May 12, 2002|By Peter Temes | Peter Temes,special to the sun

Wish You Were Here, by Stewart O'Nan. Grove/Atlantic. 528 pages. $25.

The Maxwells, like most American families, seem on the brink of disaster. The family's annual ingathering of three generations at a lakeside cottage unfolds in the pages of Stewart O'Nan's new novel, though Henry, the paterfamilias, is absent. His death the prior winter has set in motion what little action is to be found in Wish You Were Here. So many plot devices are wheeled out and made ready that the very lack of exterior drama is something of a triumph.

Anton Chekov famously admonished playwrights that any pistol produced in the first act of a play must be fired off before the final curtain. Yet most citizens walk the streets of the modern word practically deafened by hammers cocking, though seldom hearing even a distant shot. Our minds filled to bursting with other people's tragedies and barely averted crises, most of us nevertheless manage to remain unharmed, indeed untouched, by the world's mayhem. So too the Maxwells, who witness the aftermath of a teen-age girl's abduction, hear the screechings of a neighbor's security alarm nightly, and fear, generally, for the worst, though nothing at all befalls them. The world treats them kindly, their personal demons aside.

The late Henry and his widow Emily seem to have been thoroughly decent members of Pittsburgh's middle class. Their children, raised in the 1950s and '60s, had greater aspirations. Kenneth, now in his 40s, still stalks the visible world for the photograph that will justify him as an artist.

His sister Meg arrives at the cabin fresh from rehab, both kids in tow, but without her soon-to-be ex-husband. Having fled first her family, then college, then steady employment, she never found the freedom she sought, and now hungers for a shred of security for her children.

Kenneth, steady and quite like his father, earns hourly wages processing film. His 13-year-old daughter Ella wonders whether she can confess her deep love - and lust - for her cousin Sarah. She decides, wisely, that she cannot. Meanwhile, Kenneth's son Sam is a budding kleptomaniac, while Meg's son Justin seems capable, at age 8, of suicide.

Enough is here, clearly, for the worst kind of potboiler, or for an Oprah-style cycle of disaster, recovery and redemption. But none of these coiled springs unwind. O'Nan reveals, instead, how close a good and caring family can sit by disaster with disaster nevertheless held in abeyance.

The novel's most revealing moment comes over dinner. Grandmother Emily's dog Rufus, himself old enough to have sired many generations, throws up under the table. Everyone flees the room except Emily, who cleans the mess, washes her hands, and sits back down to eat. Her two granddaughters eventually return as well. "It didn't bother her," O'Nan writes in his typically clean prose, "and honestly it wouldn't have bothered her to sit out here alone to show her loyalty to Rufus and make a stand for levelheadedness."

Levelheadedness is the special grace of the older generation of Maxwells, and its occasional presence in their lakeside cottage saves this family from the awful alternatives that small decisions well made avert.

Peter Temes is the president of the Great Books Foundation in Chicago. He has written two nonfiction books on education. His works has appeared in The New York Times, the Chicago Tribune, the Harvard Review and elsewhere. He holds a Ph.D. in literature from Columbia. His Against School Reform is forthcoming from Ivan R. Dee.

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