Each of these related stories contains insight and intensity on its own; as a group they successfully create the African-American 1950s Kansas City (Kans.) community of the title as an insular world replete with detail and texture. In her fictional debut, Clair (Coping with Gravity, not reviewed) works from the outside in to show her characters, beginning with the way others see them and ending with their visions of themselves. Irene Wilson is the linchpin who connects them to one another, and the narrator of several stories. In ""October Brown,"" she observes her parents' marital problems and watches as her new teacher moves in on her father. ""Cherry Bomb"" has Irene recounting her early, awkward stabs at sexual contact with her cousin's friend Nick and the jottings she made in a diary, as well as her friend Wanda's revelation that she has gotten her first period. ""A Most Serene Girl"" follows Irene as she makes friends with Geraldine and visits her family's basement apartment in a ""tourist home"" -- which, Geraldine informs her, means that people can rent rooms there to have sex, and she and Geraldine establish an afternoon routine of peeking through keyholes. ""Secret Love"" explains why Irene's friend Wanda abruptly stops allowing Irene to read her own diary after her retarded brother Puddin' -- who likes to eat mayonnaise out of a jar with his hand -- is taken away. Other characters have their say as well. In ""The Roomers,"" the owner of a boardinghouse who has never been able to have children tells of asking unmarried schoolteacher October Brown to leave because of her pregnancy and chasing her husband away in the process. ""The Great War"" explores Irene's mother Pearlean's feelings about her husband as she sits on the front porch. Even greater than the sum of its admirable parts.