The War at Home
New York Times Sunday Book Review, June 21, 1998


by Stewart O'Nan.
338 pp. New York: Henry Holt & Company. $23.

THE WORLD STEWART O'NAN seeks to invoke disappeared more than a half-century ago, well before he was born. The actual participants in World War II, even the youngest, are about to drop over the edge of history. In fact, ''A World Away'' probably ought to be regarded (and judged) as a historical novel. Had his book been set in the Savannah of 1861, say, or Boston in 1916 instead of on the tip of Long Island circa 1943, we would doubtless be in awe of the author's command of existential detail as he summons up the Langer family's summer of discontent.

The effort at first comes on like a clear case of déjà vu all over again: red stamps for rationed meat and women waiting in line at the butcher's; Veronica Lake's hairdo; A and C cards for rationed gas; the plots of movies like ''So Proudly We Hail'' and ''Action in the North Atlantic''; NBC Radio's reassuring ''Bong, Bong, Bong'' in the night; Mom knitting as Dad and ailing Gramps listen to war news; dreaded Western Union messages from the War Department; Vaughn Monroe's ''Racing With the Moon''; kids sneaking a peek at the sexy parts of ''Forever Amber,'' once (can it be?) reckoned a very naughty novel. And so on. It is hard not to wonder, rather meanly, whether the author interviewed aging relatives or swotted up most of it from bookish sources like Richard Lingeman's ''Don't You Know There's a War On?'' One wonders, too, whether he will somehow be able to redeem the cliches of plot we have inherited from a half-century's avalanche of movies.

The father -- unstately, plump James Langer, a history teacher by trade -- is patriotically and profitably inspecting parts at the Grumman plant near Hampton Bays. His smoldering wife, Anne, has a brief, guilty (but thrilling) fling with a soldier. Their eldest son, Rennie, a conscientious objector turned Army medic, scribbles his last letter home before going into combat. Rennie's brave young wife, Dorothy, waiting for him on the West Coast, has her baby alone after a stint on the assembly line of a San Diego defense plant. There is even the requisite kid brother, Jay, who, during family moves from place to place, clings for comfort to a box full of meaningful junk.

Not to worry, though. A relentless writer can make a go of soap opera sentiments -- see ''Anna Karenina'' and ''Madame Bovary'' -- and Stewart O'Nan is nothing if not resourceful. Somewhat like the John Gardner of ''Nickel Mountain'' and the Alan Sternberg of ''Camaro City,'' he has proved willing to go to remarkable lengths to keep us turning pages about ordinary, outwardly boring folk, often with fractured marriages and nothing jobs (his best protagonist to date delivers Wonder Bread), likely to drive beat-up cars and own dogs with names like Prince and Bomber.

In his second novel, ''The Names of the Dead,'' O'Nan launches the Wonder Bread man into truly harrowing recollections of life as a medic in Vietnam, then turns what began as a story of domestic woe and combat memory into an impromptu suspense thriller about a mad killer from the medic's past who wants to terminate him with extreme prejudice. O'Nan's first novel, ''Snow Angels,'' is kept rolling by two tenuously linked plots. In one, a young mother who more or less deserves it is killed by her young husband after their baby daughter wanders off and drowns in a storm ditch. In the other, a teen-age boy is anguished by the anger and distrust loosed upon him through his parents' fecklessly unraveling marriage.

Such doings, it seems to me, like the whole World War II framework painstakingly provided in ''A World Away,'' are mainly narrative gimmicks, bones thrown to the reader so that O'Nan -- like T. S. Eliot's celebrated burglar tossing meat to the house dog -- can do his work. What interests him, and stirs his compassion, is exactly realized surfaces and the language of the everyday world, which bit by bit reveal the intricate, desperately improvised lives of his characters. Though they are still haunted by faint memories of how they should behave -- to wives, to husbands, to children -- they are adrift in the ''me'' generation and largely cast loose from a coherent sense of how to cope honorably with the way things are.

With a mere two deaths (both natural), three adulteries (two recollected) and one actual war wound, ''A World Away'' is relatively upbeat by the author's standards. And the Langers, who have moved in for the summer with James's dying father, are of a slightly loftier social scale than usual. Together they care lovingly enough for the old man as he waits to die. Rennie is reported missing in action. Is he dead? Will he return? Jay reads his brother's likely fate in every war movie down at the Regal Theater.

If O'Nan has a genius, it is for intricately overlapping streams of consciousness that rove back and forth, creating past and present with fleeting hints about the characters' lives that a reader needs to watch for like clues buried in a detective story. Some stretches are artfully jagged and enigmatic, some are so ploddingly detailed that you want to send him a blue pencil. But the story gradually weaves so complete a web that a reader who resists the urge to go AWOL early on may end by feeling as if he's been knitted up into the texture of some woolly Bundles for Britain hat or Navy muffler.

To a considerable extent, this is a book about domestic tensions. Forget the war. It adds to the strain but is really only a kind of scarecrow, not a decisive force. What matters throughout is Anne's anger at an idiotic (and, even in retrospect, hard to believe) affair James had with one of his high school students. (In 1940!) O'Nan brings brilliantly to life the minute moves and velleities, the sensitive twitchings, the fraught reticences and withholdings of self that mark this form of combat, in which duty (to the dying father, to the sons) and habit, finances and the sheer dailiness of life manage to preclude really outright destruction.

James (''fat, on the wrong side of 50'') wants to be forgiven, but deserves -- and in a few months gets -- a lifetime's chill, a decade's worth of needling feminine ire. Hopefully watching Anne's moods, registering her slightest slight, her most minute gesture that can herald a change of weather, he takes what crumbs he can. In context, it is remarkable how much mileage O'Nan manages to squeeze out of so ludicrous a line as this: ''While she'd rebuffed him yet again in bed, she had done so gently, and here she was pleasant and quick, stopping to sip her coffee, then flitting to the fridge for the oleo.''

Rennie's combat experience is mortally convincing. Anne's affair with the handsome soldier rarely rises much above romance novel quality. Dorothy in San Diego could be handled by Central Casting. Jay is too neurotic by half and of curiously indeterminate age -- he has a bike and a paper route, but sleeps with a night light and has only just learned to take a bath by himself.

At last the Langers pack the car to leave and matter-of-factly sort the father's things, everything accented by continued matrimonial sparring. ''His mother and father had been fighting all morning. When they knew he was watching,'' Jay thinks, ''they tried to make it seem funny.'' He finds their behavior shattering, especially their unconvincing attempts at the appearance of parental harmony, which are even more devastating because finally he does not know whom he can trust.

At the penultimate moment of departure, all three crammed onto the front seat, Anne suddenly reaches across Jay to touch his father's shoulder and the author allows them a minuscule epiphany. ''His father patted her hand, and, unexpectedly -- as shocking as if she'd attacked him with her fists -- she leaned across Jay, her body covering his, and kissed his father. . . . All summer he'd been terrified of them.'' Now ''he wanted to believe everything would be the way it was before.'' He knows this isn't true. ''Yet, years later, he couldn't help but remember how safe it made him feel then.''

In the world according to Stewart O'Nan, so far at least, that's about as happy as things get.