Butler and its Malcontents

by Ellen S. Wilson

The best fiction envelops you in the world it creates. In Stewart O'Nan's Snow Angels, that world is Butler, Pennsylvania, in 1974, where the Vietnam war is a dim backdrop to the destruction going on at home. The story of failed marriages, dreary jobs and tragic consequences is told by a taciturn 14-year-old named Arthur Parkinson, whose own personal world is as grim and depressed as the small town in which he lives.

Arthur's parents are splitting up, his sister is in Germany with the Air Force and his consolations are few. There is his best friend, Warren, with whom he plays in the school marching band, cuts class and smokes dope. And there is also Lila Raybern, the nicer of the weird Raybern twins-"If they had been smart we would have understood them, but they were C students, and therefore weird for no real reason."

Arthur's adolescent world of Jimi Hendrix, Pop Tarts, and inarticulate confusion is intruded upon by the parallel story of Annie Marchand, who used to baby-sit for Arthur, and whose murder opens the book. Annie is separated from her husband, who has found a vengeful religion after a suicide attempt and wants to come back to live with her and their daughter, Tara. When three-year-old Tara runs off, slips into an icy pond and drowns, Arthur is the one to find her body. And while the adults who care about him try to force a reaction to this devastating discovery, Arthur remains superficially untouched. "How did that make you feel?" asks the therapist his mother sends him to. "'Afraid,' I said. 'Why?' 'She was dead,' I explained patiently." Compared to the adults in his life, who seem hell-bent on ruining their happiness as well as his, Arthur seems quite normal.

Many of the images and scenarios in Snow Angels have haunted O'Nan for a while, appearing in various forms in his short story collection, In the Walled City, which won the Drue Heinz Literature Prize in 1993. O'Nan himself grew up in the Pittsburgh neighborhood of Point Breeze. On the basis of Snow Angels, the British literary magazine Granta selected him as one of the 52 best young American novelists, and his second novel, The Names of the Dead, was published in March.

For all its depressing subject matter, Snow Angels is a pleasure to read. O'Nan captures the crude but effective communication between 14-year-olds, when a single expletive can mean a hundred different things, given the context. In the few wet, wintry weeks that the book covers, the inhabitants of the town come wholly to life. Arthur's unsentimental narration of the discovery of Tara's body saves the episode from being so devastating as to become the book's sole focus. And it isn't just Tara's death that is tragic, but the circumstances of her life as well.

In the end, this is a bildungsroman, the story of Arthur learning what nobody wants to learn. "I hate going home," the adult Arthur confesses at the beginning of the novel. "It keeps me from being nostalgic, which by nature I am." But going home keeps this dark episode in clear focus. In Butler, Pennsylvania, in 1974, the only way to survive this bleak life is to examine it.

Ellen S. Wilson is the book review editor of Carnegie Magazine.