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By Blake de Pastino

NOVEMBER 9, 1998: 

A World Away
Stewart O'Nan (Henry Holt, cloth, $23)

Writing instructors are always telling their charges to "write what you know," advice that most of today's young writers have lived like gospel. More and more authors these days are tweaking that line between fiction and autobiography, creativity and self-indulgence, as they churn out growing numbers of novels about, well, themselves. They are books by thirtysomething New Yorkers about thirtysomething New Yorkers, novels by brunette waitresses about brunette waitresses. And more often than not, their main characters are young, frustrated writers. With famous navel-gazers like Jay McInerney and Bret Easton Ellis at the helm, the new generation of novelists has turned to its own reflection for meaning, and really there's nothing wrong with that. But it doesn't have to be that way.

Stewart O'Nan is one of the few writers his age who has searched far afield for inspiration. His first novel from 1994, Snow Angels, focused on gruesome dramas in the American hinterland. His Names of the Dead was a powerful rendering of a Vietnam vet--so knowledgeable and sympathetic, in fact, that it won acclaim from veterans' groups. And in last year's gritty, sensational The Speed Queen, O'Nan took on the voice of a woman on death row. Rarely since the days of Arthur Miller and J. D. Salinger has an author taken such pains to make himself invisible in his work, to write about experiences not his own. Some would argue that it's fiction in its purest form.

In his latest release, A World Away, O'Nan explores yet another swath of unfamiliar territory for a writer of his generation--World War II. And in many respects, the distance between the author and his subject is what marks the novel, both for good and for bad. In essence, it's an excellent lesson in the challenges of writing "real fiction."

The year is 1943. The place, a beachfront village in upstate New York. This is where we meet the Langer family, a wartime household that's groping for its own sense of security. There's James, the adulterous husband; Anne, the spiteful wife; Jay, on the brink of puberty and plagued by nightmares, and Rennie, the elder son who has been shipped off to the Pacific, his teenage bride tumid with pregnancy. Together, this shrapnel of a family shares close quarters in the house of James' ailing father, and it's not long before they begin to studiously avoid each other. Theirs is a story of disconnection--missed chances and unspoken emotions--told with an omniscient voice that probes each character one chapter at a time.

It's the quality of that voice--its sympathy and authority--that really gives A World Away its greatest strength. O'Nan is a master at painting elaborate scenes with just a few words--rich with details and telling human moments--and his skills are put to good use here. Off the coast of Alaska, for example, Rennie and other grunts are waiting for battle: "a horn shook the air, and everyone laughed at their terror." Back home, "the river ran black in spring, the thaw piling ice on the banks like smashed china." On every page you can find a well-turned phrase or glimpsing insight. And then there's the historical ambiance. DeSotos tool the streets of town. Bogart stars in Sahara at the cinema. A Philco buzzes in the living room, bringing news of war.

Few writers can craft a scene as rich as O'Nan, true enough, so maybe it's ironic that this same richness is also what hobbles his latest novel. There's only a thin thread of a plot here--a backstory about James and Anne's infidelities, followed by Rennie's traumatic return from war--but even that is subsumed by pages of pitch-thick atmosphere. Basically, A World Away is so sonorous a period piece that it struggles to rise above the level of melodrama. The characters find themselves competing with the setting.

But still, O'Nan is a writer of such resplendent talent that his overindulgences are easy to forgive. If anything, we could use more young novelists who are as interested in creating fiction, and fewer who only want to parse over their own tiny lives. (It's no coincidence, for instance, that both McInerney and Ellis are coming out with books about famous young people this season.) A full four novels into his career, O'Nan is poised to become America's best young novelist. All he needs to do is share a little bit more of "what he knows," in addition to what he has researched.

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