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Brad Listi talks with Stewart O’Nan, author of the novel West of Sunset , the official February selection of The TNB Book Club.  Listen to the podcast here.

Brad Listi (BL): Three minutes, ladies and gentlemen.

Stewart O’Nan (SO): Gotta warm up my Magic 8-ball.

BL: (He’s not referring to cocaine, ladies and gentlemen.)

SO: I was gonna say — not a Belushi reference.

Greetings, TNB readers and Book Club members!

This month’s TNB Book Club selection is Stewart O’Nan’s Emily, Alone.



JE: It’s no secret that I’m a big fan of Stewart O’Nan. His winning combination of pathos, intelligence, curiosity and heroic range, make the dude a national treasure. Like Steinbeck (and Dickens and Twain), O’Nan writes about “the little people.” He’s a bard for the blue collar, reporting on the quiet and sometimes desperate lives of decent folks who may not be making headlines with their heroism, but in whom we recognize ourselves with a clarity that is all too rare in modern literature.

His forthcoming novel, Emily Alone, though it is something of a sequel to 2003′sWish You Were Here, stands on its own beautifully (I know, because I never read Wish You Were Here!) Through the eyes of Emily Maxwell, and elderly Pittsburgh widow, O’Nan offers us, among other things, a portrait of a disappearing America. Since I’m too lazy to write a synopsis myself, here’s one I found among the promotional materials:

“Stewart O’Nan’s intimate new novel follows Emily Maxwell, a widow whose grown children have long moved away. She dreams of visits by her grandchildren while mourning the turnover of her quiet Pittsburgh neighborhood, but when her sole companion and sister-in-law Arlene faints at their favorite breakfast buffet, Emily’s days change. As she grapples with her new independence, she discovers a hidden strength and realizes that life always offers new possibilities. Like most older women, Emily is a familiar yet invisible figure, one rarely portrayed so honestly. Her mingled feelings-of pride and regret, joy and sorrow- are gracefully rendered in wholly unexpected ways.”

In short, it is a story of re-invention. Like his little masterpiece Last Night at the LobsterEmily Alone illuminates the ordinary, until it is nothing short of extraordinary. While there’s nothing much mechanical driving the narrative, O’Nan compels us instead with the accumulation of luminous detail. He puts us inside the skin of his characters, and shows us how they live with staggering authenticity. To read about Emily Maxwell, is to live her life under relatively ordinary circumstances. Errands. Housecleaning. Buffets. Drives through suburban  Pittsburgh. Sounds dull (so did Last Night at the Lobster!), but it is, in fact, a thrilling accomplishment.  O’Nan doesn’t merely create sympathetic characters, he builds characters so three dimensional, that we actually empathize with them, actually inhabit them.

My one complaint about O’Nan is the guy suffers from Joyce Carol Oates syndrome–too damn many books! I wish he’d catch his breath for three or four years and give us one big beautiful novel for the ages.

DH: There are so many wonderful implications, so many indirect hints at meaning in Emily Alone that I’m blown away by them. Here’s one: that Emily got a gift of the Lord Peter Wimsey DVDs from her son. She used to watch the series. Her close friend Louise would come over and they would have wine and watch the broadcasts, make it an event. But now Louise has passed on and Emily doesn’t want to crack open the DVD’s because without Louise to share them, it’s not of interest anymore. Now that’s a great anecdote of mourning, of losses that can’t be replaced.

You sense Emily’s elderly friend, the chain smoking Arlene, is not going to last much longer. You sense that her greatly beloved, stalwart dog, her only house companion, is not going to be with Emily that much longer either. The novel is full of fading images, like the loved ones in an old photo.

But Emily’s absence of self-pity moves your heart: Emily awakened in bed when a passing car smashes into her parked car outside. Sitting bolt upright in bed in the dark. Knowing that there’s no one to help as you trundle through empty rooms, wondering what has happened.

In chapters which subtly vary in length from just a few paragraphs to several pages, O’Nan shows his total mastery of craft. O’Nan is eloquent by his silences and by what he only gently suggests. I want to cite a syndrome too. The syndrome of one sentence or one paragraph too many.

It’s when I’d like to say to the writer: Why don’t you just stop! It was perfect but now you marred your story by running on too much in the mouth, by trying to explain what you should only suggest. Let the reader figure it out. Don’t draw them a diagram. Stewart O’Nan would never make that mistake. What great art!

JC: Not to stray too far from Stewart O’Nan and Emily, Alone, I’m in agreement here. I love a verbose, lyrical sentence, scene, chapter, book, whatever as much as anyone. But, for christ’s sake, know when you’ve reached the end! So many novels… so many I read, and some are nice books, some are great, some are unreadable, you know how it is. And a bad book, well you just throw it across the room and move on, but a good one, nothing annoys me more than reading the last chapter and wishing I could unread it. And you can’t review a book and say: This is amazing, but don’t read the last chapter. That tidy little bow. Everyone will read it anyway. Hell, I would.

Anyway, Stewart O’Nan doesn’t make me do that. This is a great little book. I learned the other day reading JE’s post that it reprises the Emily character from a previous novel, though you’d never know it from the ease with which it stands on it’s own.

Emily has a quiet determination that etches itself with a simple elegance that feels so archaic, almost a period piece. Of course, Emily is the timepiece here. Her days are speckled with melancholy memories, tiny heartbreaks, the occasional small victory. Lovely.

JR: I came to Stewart O’Nan late.  I once saw him read with Richard Russo and barely took notice.  He judged the Hint Fiction contest that I entered last year, which in turn got my story accepted into the book that was edited by Robert Swartwood.  I suppose there is something cosmic going on here.

I loved the movie version of Snow Angels, and felt like I was missing out, like I was ignoring a American master.  I had heard that Songs for the Missing was amazing, and after reading it, nearly in one sitting, I could not agree more with what everyone was saying.  It’s so good, tight, detailed, heartbreaking, and fast paced.  It almost operates like an anti-thriller.  There is such a pungent haze floating over the story, brutal sadness, and simmering anger.  A girl goes missing, not a new theme, but the aftermath, the parents search, will leave you breathless.  I loved how the father was selling real estate, and O’Nan describes the house he is selling, I can actually still see it, as the mailbox gets a few words, which makes the description fit perfectly.  I hoped that the missing daughter would turn up, and I watched in horror as the parents finally realize that the search will always continue, that there may never be an answer.

O’Nan is a true American realist.  A writer who presents a slice of life wrapped in all the weirdness and banality of life itself.

-3G1B