O’Nan’s aptly titled sixth novel explores a Pittsburgh neighborhood with the same nonjudgmental empathy and respect for ordinary folks already evident in his first, Snow Angels (1994).
People in East Liberty have very mixed feelings about the Martin Robinson Express Busway. It will supposedly bring jobs, and it’s named after a black congressman who’s done a lot for the community, but it’ll also cut off the African-American area from the rest of Pittsburgh. Moreover, it was the scene of a bad accident before it even opened. Spray-painting an unfinished walkway, two teenaged graffiti artists fell: Bean was killed, and his friend Crest was paralyzed. Crest is one of the central characters in a narrative that roves through East Liberty to weave individual memories and dreams into a collective portrait. Crest’s father, Harold, struggles to get over an affair with a younger man, while wife Jackie seethes. Older brother Eugene, recently out of prison and newly religious, is trying to build a life without drugs or violence, though he fails to save his junkie friend, Nene, or Nene’s angry younger brother. Vanessa, who broke up with Crest shortly before the accident, raises their son and holds down a job while taking a college course on African-American culture more out of a sense of duty than any burning interest. Crest, though never a good student, has a stronger sense of his heritage; he plans to portray members of the community and other blacks who have given their lives for their people in a painting that ultimately becomes the author’s moving symbol of art’s power to celebrate the spirit of those society prefers to ignore. Although O’Nan limns Crest’s consciousness in the hip-hop rhythms of young urban black speech, he chronicles other characters’ thoughts in more conventional language, emphasizing the variety of African-American lives and the similarity of their aspirations to those of any other ethnic group.
Quietly passionate, imbued with a subtle understanding of how the personal and political intertwine: another fine effort from an always-intriguing writer.