- The Washington Times - Sunday, August 18, 2002

WISH YOU WERE HERE
By Stewart O'Nan
Grove Press, $25, 517 pages
REVIEWED BY VINCENT D. BALITAS

Any reader whose memories include a vacation house, usually near water, where for a week or two every summer you returned to undergo some significant, some ephemeral personal and familial transformations as well as to experience the eerily sweet torture of being confined with extra-vigilant parents, geeky siblings, narcoleptic grandparents, garrulous stressed-out aunts and uncles, and nerdy cousins, will know the Maxwells.
Any reader who, with a slight shudder, recalls being cooped-up in a house that gave off a whiff of decay during those inevitable rainy days that seemed designed by some malevolent creature to throw adults and children into close quarters just to observe the strategies they'd employ to avoid mayhem, will find much to recognize in Stewart O'Nan's seventh novel, "Wish You Were Here," a rather long and occasionally overwritten novel that, no matter its faults, is sure to provide the reader with a serious examination of what makes a family tick. His many skills as a writer bring to life the extended family Maxwell and what might be their last week together at their summer place at Chautauqua Lake.
Mr. O'Nan's name should be familiar to readers of quality fiction. Named to Granta's 1996 list of the best young American novelists, an important endorsement by a very well-respected literary publication, he has demonstrated an ability to combine sharp technical skills with a wildly-creative imagination to produce a body of work that is if not consistently of the first rank, then certainly is more often than not exciting and impressive to read.
From the battlefields of Vietnam ("The Names of the Dead" 1996) to the death row cell where Marjorie Strandiford tapes her life's bizarre story ("The Speed Queen" 1997), to an African-American neighborhood in Pittsburgh, Pa. ("Everyday People" 2002), his fiction usually gives us strong, often unforgettable characters, well developed plots that do not necessarily follow traditional narrative methods, and memorable, at times poetic, language. His new novel, if not his best, continues this signature.
Although interesting enough to attract readers both of popular and of literary fiction, it is not his novels that have gained a wide readership, but rather "The Circus Fire," a carefully crafted history of the fire that, in 1944, in Hartford, Conn., quickly consumed the big top of Ringling Bros. Barnum & Bailey Circus. More harrowing that even the best popular catastrophe-driven thrillers, "The Circus Fire" seems to give us as much as we can possibly know about the events of that day, the people involved, and the mixture of fact and myth that defines its history.
Mr. O'Nan's microscopic analysis of the tragedy compels the reader to feel the inferno and all the lives it forever changed because he is able to view his subject with a novelist's eye for the tale and the telling as well as with an historian's passion for detail.
A professional obsession with details can serve the historian well recall Fernand Braudel's magisterial "The Mediterranean and the Mediterranean World in the Age of Philip II" but left to run wild it can lead to overwriting by a novelist. Mr. O'Nan's "Wish You Were Here," its title taken from the trite meaningless sentiment tacked on vacation postcards, at times seems to fall victim to his layering of details. The novel's structure requires the repetition of events because each character's version of what happens each day of the vacation, from Saturday arrival to Saturday departure, competes with every other family member's.
The reader, voyeuristic as always, gets to see the various sides of each event as well as to watch the family dynamics, so full of the ironies that creep into the mini-dramas we all enact.
If Mr. O'Nan's long look at the Maxwell clan appears to give us more information than we need or want, the patient reader will discover by novel's end that most things fit together. It is equally true that both characters and reader are quite happy when departure day arrives. A week with the Maxwell's is more than enough.
Not all of the Maxwell family makes it to the lake for what might be, if the matriarch has her way, their last stay in the family home. Henry, the patriarch, is dead before the novel begins. His presence, however, exerts a powerful pressure on his family. In addition, Jeff Carlisle, Margaret (Meg) Maxwell's estranged husband, appears only in telephone calls and, like Henry, in the conversations and memories of others. The Carlisle children are present: Justin, a shy boy who seems afraid of his own shadow; Sarah, a precocious, boy-crazy beauty who is learning her body's power.
Emily Maxwell, who is thinking of selling the summer place, arrives with her old dog Rufus, and her sister-in-law Arlene, an unmarried retired schoolteacher. The last four cast members ("Wish You Were Here" could be adapted for Reality TV) are Ken, a photographer who seems to lack that special something needed to transform a photograph into a piece of art; his wife Lisa, who worries about her husband's self-absorption, her shaky marriage, and her dislike for her mother-in-law; their son Sam, a lying, cheating, stealing lad who, with the dyspeptic pooch Rufus, provides some of the comic relief that serves to lighten the darknesses the family creates and shares; and their daughter Ella, an awkward girl who has a powerful crust on her beautiful cousin Sarah.
Much of the pleasure in getting to know this odd but not truly dysfunctional family comes from the reader's need to put all the information downloaded by each character into some order to make sense of the viewpoints, and to shape the Maxwell family into something more interesting than just another novelistic portrait of an American family trapped not only by blood or marriage, and the shared memories they create, but also by time itself, that hero/villain of all human activity.
With all the pressures the Maxwells are under Henry's death, Emily's selfishness, Ken's artistic failure, Arlene's isolation, Lisa's neediness, Margaret's addictions, just to mention the adults it is amazing they don't run far away from each other. Stewart O'Nan's pursuit of what makes them and their children individuals as well as members of a family takes the reader deep into each character to show how he or she acts and reacts.
There is something very natural about how the three generations are able to coexist, at least for a week. However, there are enough differences, some, though not all, related to time, to reveal the various faxes each character feels the need to prepare so as to continue the age-old tug of war.
Mr. O'Nan, then, does a wonderful job dissecting the Maxwells. He reveals, after 517 pages, that families, well, yes, are just families. Readers will not be surprised. Nothing is ever resolved, except for the fate of the summer place. No great epiphanies appear to alter a character's life. The week begins; the week ends. Yes, we get superbly written scenes of the Maxwells at Niagara Falls, and of a edgy round of golf between Emily and Ken, but what comes across to the reader is how each family member is both the manipulator and the victim of time.
The reader, once the novel is finished, might well recall the words of that great poet of time, T.S. Eliot, who, in the opening of "Burnt Norton," the first part of what many readers, this one included, consider his most important poetic achievement, "Four Quartets," wrote: "Time present and time past/ Are both perhaps present in time future,/ And time future contained in time past."

Vincent D. Balitas is a poet, teacher and critic in Pottsville, Pa.


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